What “we” have been doing to reduce poverty for the last fifty years doesn’t seem to have done much good.

If you want to know why I’ve been reading a lot on developmental economics in the last few years, check out these amazingly depressing statistics –

Poverty in the United States:

  • 14.7% – portion of Americans living below the official poverty in 1966, right after our “war on poverty” started
  • 14.5% – portion of Americans living below the poverty level in 2013

Poverty around the world:

  • 2.6 billion – number of people living on less than two dollars a day in 1981
  • 2.2 billion – number of people living below that level in 2011

I will argue that living at the official poverty level in 2013 is a lot nicer life than living at the poverty line in 1966. Also, the number of people on the planet has risen in the last 30 years so the number of people living in dirt-eating poverty dropping by 400 million is actually good news.

On the other hand, you would think that after spending trillions of dollars in the United States and many trillions of dollars around the world to reduce poverty “we” should have had a humongously larger impact.

Whether poverty is being one car repair away from homelessness or stepping around the prostitutes and drug dealers while walking home from school (as in the U.S.) or feeding your children dirt cookies so they will stop crying from hunger and go to sleep (as in some places in Latin America or Africa), there is something horribly wrong when the stats barely budge in 30 or 50 years.

That’s the introduction as Jason Zweig explores The Anti-Poverty Experiment.

A whole bunch of people are living a better life in the last 50 years. At the same time, a whole bunch of people have been left behind.

A new generation of economists is actually testing what works. The amazing thing is that nobody, but nobody, can prove what has worked in the last 50 years. Oh yes, everyone, especially the people who get all the headlines and write the best-seller books believe they have the solution. There’s no indication that their magic bullets actually work anywhere other than their one, limited, structured, controlled test.

The article spends a lot of time talking about the “randomistas” who are trying varied things, measuring results in controlled random studies, then trying to replicate what works.

A major focus in the new efforts is on the psychological angle of what makes a difference. We humans are complex and messy psychologically.

In addition, economic and political systems are mind boggling complex.

To illustrate my concern, check out the quotations at the end of the article from a professor who knows everything about everything and is convinced he has the magic bullet to fix poverty everywhere. Then do a little reading on the net to find out that his fantabulous results weren’t quite all the headline articles claim.

Like I said, check out the first two paragraphs of the article.

I think it will break your heart and make you wonder, like I am, what “we” have been doing wrong for half a century.

Maybe there are better ways to do things so people will get themselves out of dirt-eating poverty.

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