There is growing support in the rich world for a basic-income guarantee (BIG), in which the government would provide a fixed cash transfer to every adult, poor or not. In 2015, for example, the Swiss will vote on a referendum to introduce a BIG. We have not yet seen a national BIG rolled out, although there are policies in place with similar features. (For example, the US earned-income tax credit, while not strictly a BIG, contains some similarities.) Proponents say it’s an easy way to reduce poverty and inequality; if that’s so, it’s time to think BIG in the developing world, too.
Support for the BIG idea (also known as a poll transfer, guaranteed income, citizenship income, or an unmodified social dividend) has spanned the political spectrum. Some supporters see it as a “right of citizenship,” or a foundation for economic freedom to relax the material constraint on peoples’ choices in life. Others have pointed out that a BIG is an administratively easy way to reduce poverty and inequality, with modest distortionary effect on the economy as a whole. There are no substitution effects of a BIG on its own (there’s no action anyone can take to change their transfer receipts). Supporters also note there’s no stigma associated with a BIG, since it’s not targeted only to poor people. And a BIG may well be more politically sustainable than finely targeted options that may have a narrow base of support.
Opponents, on the other hand, echo longstanding concerns that the welfare state undermines work incentives. There may well be income effects of a BIG on demand, including for leisure. The effect on employment is unclear, however. The BIG could ease constraints on work opportunities, such as those that hinder self-employment or migration. On balance, work may even increase.
As with any social policy, a complete assessment of the implications for efficiency and equity of a BIG must also take all costs and how it is financed into account. The administrative cost would likely be low, though certainly not zero given some form of personal registration system would be needed to avoid “double dipping” and to ensure larger households receive proportionately more. One low-cost way of doing this would be to establish a personal identification system, such as the Aadhaar in India.
Further, a BIG could be a feasible budget-neutral way of reforming social policies. There could be ample scope for financing it by cutting poorly targeted transfer schemes and subsidies heavily favoring the non-poor. A BIG scheme would easily replace many policies found in practice today. For example, it would clearly do better in reaching the poor than the subsidies on the consumption of normal goods (such as fuel) that are still found in a number of countries.
The un-targeted nature of a BIG runs against the prevailing view in some circles that finer targeting is always better. But that view is questionable. For example, recent research has shown that once one accounts for all the costs involved in India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, including the forgone earnings of participants, a BIG with the same budgetary cost would have greater impact on poverty than the labor earnings from the existing scheme. The work requirements of the employment scheme ensure that it is very well-targeted. Even so, it is likely to be a less cost-effective way to reduce poverty than an untargeted BIG with the same budgetary cost. There may well be other advantages to India’s current scheme; for example, asset creation, risk mitigation, and empowerment. But it is not clear whether these benefits would tilt the balance relative to a far simpler BIG.
The BIG idea should be put on the menu of social policy options for developing countries.
(This was first posted on the Center for Global Development’s Policy Blog.)
The challenges of measuring and monitoring global poverty have received a lot of attention in recent times. There have been debates about the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as some more technical debates. Assessments of progress against poverty at the country level, and most decisions about how best to fight poverty within countries, do not require global poverty measures. Nonetheless, such measures are important to public knowledge about the world as a whole, and they help inform the work of development agencies, including in setting targets for overall progress.
In a new working paper I discuss three current issues that are specific to global poverty monitoring, and proposes some solutions.
The first relates to one of the main sources of dissatisfaction with prevailing poverty measures that use a constant real line, namely that they do not take account of the concerns people everywhere face about relative deprivation, shame and social exclusion; these can be termed social effects on welfare. To some extent the fact that higher national lines are found in richer countries reflects these social effects on welfare. But the differences in national lines also reflect to some extent more generous welfare standards for defining poverty in richer countries.
Yet we can all agree that we need to use a consistent welfare standard in measuring poverty globally. We need to be reasonably confident that people we judge to have the same level of welfare—the same capabilities for example—are being treated the same way wherever they live. Amartya Sen put the point nicely: that “…an absolute approach in the space of capabilities translates into a relative approach in the space of commodities.” But when we think about how best to do that, we run into the problem that we do not know whether the higher lines in richer countries reflect differences in the incomes needed to attain the same level of welfare, or (instead) that they reflect higher welfare standards in richer countries.
The paper argues that two global poverty lines are needed—a familiar lower line with fixed purchasing power across countries and a new upper line given by the poverty line that one would expect given the country’s level of average income, based on how national poverty lines vary across countries. The true welfare-consistent absolute line lies somewhere between the two bounds. By this approach, to be judged “not poor” one needs to be neither absolutely poor (independently of where and when one lives) nor relatively poor (depending on where and when one lives).
The second problem is an evident disconnect between how poverty is measured in practice and the emphasis given in social policy and moral philosophy to leaving none behind. For example, a 2013 report initiated by the U.N. on setting the new SDGs argued that: “The indicators that track them should be disaggregated to ensure no one is left behind and targets should only be considered ‘achieved’ if they are met for all relevant income and social groups.” But how do we know of none are being left behind? To assess whether the poorest are being left behind one needs a measure of the consumption floor. Here there is a severe data constraint, namely that a low observed consumption or income in a survey could be purely transient, and so unrepresentative of permanent consumption.
However, I have shown that a more reliable estimate of the consumption floor can be derived from existing measures of poverty under certain assumptions. This can be readily implemented from existing poverty data, and it provides a rather different vantage point on progress against poverty. While the developing world has made much progress in reducing the number of poor, there has been very little progress in raising the consumption floor above its biological level. In that sense, the poorest have been left behind. Progress against poverty should not be judged solely by the level of the consumption floor, but it should not be ignored.
Finally, the paper reviews the ongoing concerns about the current Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) exchange rates from the International Comparison Program (ICP). (See, for example, the CGD blog post here, and the comments on that post; my new paper addresses this debate.) The days are (thankfully) gone when the community of users simply accepts without question the aggregate statistics produced by publicly-funded statistical organizations like the ICP. Recurrent debates about the ICP’s results have been fueled in part by poorly-understood methodological changes and in part by the ICP’s longstanding lack of openness, notably in access to primary data.
Calculating PPPs that are appropriate for global poverty measurement using ICP price data is not exactly easy, but nor is it the hardest task imaginable as long as researchers have access to the data. There are also options to using ICP prices, although further testing is needed on their performance. Even staying with the ICP, adjustments will be called for, such as to deal with urban bias in the price surveys. Going forward, better price-level comparisons for the purpose of measuring poverty, including sub-national analysis, require re-estimating the PPPs from the primary data. If the ICP is to continue to be a valuable resource, it needs to make public the primary data to facilitate such calculations.
Each of the paper’s proposals for addressing these problems could undoubtedly be improved upon and refined if there is enough agreement that effort is needed to develop better global poverty measures along these lines. That effort is justified if our global measures are to continue to have relevance in global public knowledge, and to international policy making and poverty monitoring.
This week saw the release of the World Bank’s updated global poverty counts. There is new country-level data on poverty and inequality underlying these revisions. But the big change is that the numbers are now anchored to the 2011 Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) rates for consumption from the International Comparisons Program (ICP). Previously the numbers were based on the prior ICP round for 2005. The Bank published a reasonably clear Press Release explaining that the new international poverty line is $1.90 per person per day at 2011 prices; also see this blog post by Bank researchers.
Some observers have said that $1.90 entails a large upward revision to the Bank’s global poverty line. An article in the Financial Times ran the headline that “The Earth’s poor set to swell as World Bank shifts poverty line.” Similarly, ’in this Vox piece, CGD’s Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur claim that this is “the biggest upward revision of the poverty line in 25 years.”
The FT article went further to suggest why this has happened, quoting Angus Deaton, a Professor at Princeton, as claiming that the Bank has an “institutional bias towards finding more poverty rather than less.” By this view, there is a motive to the Bank’s seemingly large upward revision to its poverty line—to keep itself in business as the leading institution fighting global poverty. But this conspiracy theory makes little sense on closer inspection.
We must first understand that the $1.90 is in 2011 prices while $1.25 was in 2005 prices. Everyone knows about inflation. But how should one deal with inflation for this purpose? If one simply updates the $1.25 line for inflation in the U.S. one gets $1.44 a day in 2011. This was done in some calculations soon after the release of the 2011 ICP results, such as those by CGD researchers reported here. Updating the line for U.S. inflation 2005-11 greatly reduces the global poverty rate for 2011 when compared to the old PPPs.
However, fixing the U.S. purchasing power of the international line over time is very hard to defend given the generally higher inflation rates in developing countries than the U.S. Thus, while $1.44 a day in 2011 has the same purchasing power in the US as $1.25 in 2005, when $1.44 is expressed in local currencies of developing countries using the 2011 PPPs it has lower purchasing power in most of those countries than when the prior $1.25 line in local currency is adjusted for inflation in those countries. In that sense, using $1.44 in 2011 lowers the poverty line, and that is why one gets less poverty.
Instead, the Bank’s researchers went back to the national poverty lines for low-income countries that were used to derive the $1.25 a day line, as described here. They then updated those national lines to 2011 prices using the best available country-specific Consumer Price Indices. On then converting to PPP for 2011 and taking an average they got $1.90. This is not the only way one could have updated the $1.25 a day line. One could instead have asked what the average national line is amongst the poorest “x” countries in 2011, which would have been more consistent with past methods used by the Bank. But the method they have used to get to $1.90 is defensible, and it has the appeal that the underlying national lines for low-income countries have constant purchasing power over time.
This is surely a strange way for the Bank to reflect the claimed bias toward overstating the extent of poverty. More plausibly, in my view, there is no such bias since the real value of the line is being held constant in poor countries.
Furthermore, none of this makes much difference to the pace of progress against extreme absolute poverty over time. As the Bank announced in its Press Release, that progress remains largely unchanged from the old PPPs. Indeed, the PR is quite upbeat on the pace of progress. This hardly sounds like a bias toward exaggerating the extent of global poverty!
There are, nonetheless, changes in the composition of the world’s poor, as the new ICP round has revised the PPPs for many countries. Those changes are not yet well understood. (See, for example, my comments here on India’s new PPP.) As I noted in a recent blog post, “We need better global poverty measures,” the ICP has not been as open as one would like about their price data. And the raw PPPs are not well suited to poverty measurement. The Bank’s researchers have done some “patch-ups” (such as adjusting for the evident urban bias in the ICP’s price surveys), but a more fundamental ICP overhaul is needed if the PPPs are to continue to be used in global poverty measurement.
I also argued in the same blog post that the absolute line of $1.25 a day in 2005 prices (or $1.90 a day in 2011 prices) is inadequate today. Two global poverty lines are now needed—a lower line with fixed purchasing power across countries and a new upper line given by the poverty line that one would expect given the country’s level of average income, based on how national poverty lines vary across countries. The true welfare-consistent absolute line—whereby one judges poverty by a common absolute standard of welfare, which may well require differing commodities in different settings—lies somewhere between the two bounds. By this approach, to be judged “not poor” one needs to be neither absolutely poor (independently of where and when one lives) nor relatively poor (depending on where and when one lives). Global poverty estimates for both bounds can be found here; the upper bound suggests less progress against poverty, but still progress. If anything, the World Bank is overestimating the pace of that progress.
My advocacy of this new “upper bound” is not some bias toward over-estimating poverty for some conspiratorial reason. Rather it recognizes the differing social realities of what is needed to not be considered poor in today’s world. The World Bank, and its critics, also needs to recognize those realities.
(This was first posted on the Center for Global Development’s Policy Blog.)