(RNS) — The world has made dramatic progress against poverty in recent decades and continues to make some progress despite the pandemic, increased conflict and climate change. This great liberation is like the biblical exodus, but much bigger. It has both religious and political significance.
The United Nations last week presented new data on progress in reducing poverty and protecting the planet. Extreme weather events make it obvious that we haven’t been doing enough to protect the planet, and many people imagine global poverty has also been getting worse.
In fact, global poverty declined more over the last several decades than ever before in human history — from 35% of the world’s people in 1990 to 8% in 2019. Encouraged by this progress, the governments of the world agreed in 2015 on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG No. 1 is to end poverty by 2030.
People in extreme poverty suffer hunger, limited health care, limited schooling, vulnerability and shame. A man in Kenya who participated in a World Bank study of poverty said: “Don’t ask me what poverty is because you have met it outside my house. Look at the house and count the number of holes. Look at my utensils and the clothes I am wearing. Look at everything and write what you see. What you see is poverty.” The SDG goals monitor progress against various aspects of poverty and threats to our planet. But the top-line international metric is extreme poverty, defined as less than $2.15 per person per day.
The pandemic was a huge setback for the world’s climb out of mass poverty. People all over the world were trapped in their homes in 2020 and couldn’t go to work. Developing-country governments made efforts to help but don’t have the financial capacity that high-income countries have. The number of people in extreme poverty surged by 200 million in 2020. Yet, the UN is reporting that global poverty has now been brought down to the level of 2019 again. They project that extreme poverty will drop from 670 million people to 575 million by 2030.
The new Census data on U.S. poverty that was released last week tells a different, but related, story. U.S. poverty also surged when the pandemic hit but was reduced by the pandemic assistance programs — dramatically so in 2021. It went back up to its pre-pandemic level in 2022 because President Biden didn’t have quite as many votes in Congress as he needed to continue programs that were working. But the reduction of U.S. poverty during the pandemic gives us recent evidence that further progress is possible.
The overall lesson from U.S. and international experience together is that the pandemic disrupted but did not reverse progress against poverty. In fact, the pandemic experience demonstrated the tremendous resilience of progress against poverty.
The ancient Hebrews understood their escape from slavery, years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness and settlement in a land of milk and honey, as an experience of God. I see the world’s progress against poverty, even when there are setbacks, as a contemporary experience of our loving God. I’m convinced that God is calling us to achieve the reduction in poverty that is so clearly feasible.
Whether people believe in God or not, most people recognize that overcoming poverty and hunger in our country and around the world is sacred work. It merits more support from people of faith and conscience in this country than it now receives.
One important way to help is doing our part to influence U.S. government support for global progress against poverty.
U.S. international aid has played a helpful role in the reduction of poverty around the world in recent decades. Between 2000 and 2019, poverty-focused foreign aid quadrupled in quantity and improved in quality. Faith-based advocacy organizations provided important advocacy support. They received powerful help, notably from Bono and Bill Gates. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama pushed the cause forward, and a bipartisan coalition in Congress kept President Trump from making deep cuts in aid.
As Congress struggles to come to some decision on appropriations this week, far-right Republicans in the House of Representatives are insisting on deep cuts in both domestic and international poverty programs. International aid is certainly under attack. The program to fight AIDS that President Bush launched is very much at risk, even though it has saved 25 million lives. Funding for emergency aid and agricultural assistance in desperate places like Somalia and Afghanistan is also under attack.
The feasibility of continued progress against global poverty strengthens the moral case for citizen action on international aid. That includes both advocacy with our members of Congress and attention to this issue as we make voting decisions.
(David Beckmann is president emeritus of Bread for the World and coordinator of the Circle of Protection, an advocacy coalition of church organizations with 100 million members. He is both a pastor and an economist. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)