In the past 30 years, the number of people who live in extreme poverty has decreased by half — but most Americans wouldn't tell you that.
According to a recent survey by Barna Group and Compassion International, eight in 10 Americans don't know that global poverty is in sharp decline. In fact, two-thirds think it's getting worse.
Why the fatalistic attitude?
Some people think poverty is inevitable, some can't get past the enormity of the problem and others are jaded by what they see as corruption in impoverished countries, according to the study.
Clint Jenkin, vice president of research at Barna Group, which conducted the study, chalks it up to the prevalence of bad news about poverty. "We tend to overestimate the occurrence of something that’s easy to think about," he says. "Things that are top-of-mind have a bigger impact on our reasoning, and poverty is one of those things."
It's ironic because the more poverty organizations draw attention to the issue, he says, the more they make it easy for people to believe that it's an enormous, intractable problem. "When trying to raise money, they have to convince people of the need, but also convince them that it's getting better."
The consequences for cynicism toward poverty might affect charitable giving and humanitarian work, according to the study. The authors also find that respondents don't believe that global poverty can be eradicated the next few decades and that concern about global poverty is on the decline.
Earlier this year, India was declared polio-free. Before 2001, measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths a year and now infections are down by 71 percent, according to the World Health Organization.
In the early 1980s, half the world's population was locked in extreme poverty, and today that number is down to 21 percent.
“That’s a 31-point drop, and that happened in the span of a generation,” says Scott Todd in his book "Hope Rises." “So, for people who are skeptical, what they’re really saying is they don’t believe we can keep the same pace of progress that we’ve had for the past 25 years.”
Todd's ideas echo those of Bill Gates, who earlier this year claimed that poverty could be ended by 2035. "By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been," Gates wrote in the Gates Foundation annual report, citing widespread improvements in public health, life expectancy and dramatic turnarounds in formerly poverty-stricken places like Mexico City and Nairobi.
If most people believe that poverty can't be cured, does that affect generosity and charitable giving? The study conducted by Barna Group, a research firm focused on faith and culture, found that it might.
"This lack of awareness likely leads some people to low levels of engagement: If nothing can be done about it, why should I do anything?" says David Kinnaman, who directed the study.
The general population is split on this issue: 45 percent of U.S. adults in the report said that knowing that poverty is in decline makes them more likely to help with the effort, and 55 percent said it wouldn't make a difference.
Among Christians, however, knowing that poverty is largely curable could change behavior. About two-thirds of practicing Protestants and Christians under 40 say that would motivate them to "do more" to eradicate poverty in the coming year. The study did not include specific information for those from non-Christian faiths.
"People invest in a cause when they are confident that their investment makes a difference," says Kinnaman, who notes that since 2011, strong concern about extreme poverty has decreased from 21 percent to 16 percent among U.S. adults. "The pessimistic attitude toward ending poverty may be a key barrier to mobilizing people and resources."
Organizations that do well are those that make a "direct connection" between their work and the way that it impacts someone's life, says Jenkin. Organizations need to be able to show results. "People want to know that they are making a difference," he says, even if it makes a difference for just a few individuals.
Making lofty claims can also erode confidence, he says. "When you're saying give to this cause because we're going to get rid of poverty, it's a double-edged sword." Some people will think it's doable, but some won't, and that can "erode trust in the messenger" and impede credibility, he says.
Still, the study found that respondents were trying to address poverty — more so with money than time. "People tend to think of it as a problem with a financial cure," Kinnaman noted in the report. About 39 percent of respondents said that they donated to a non-profit to help those in poverty and 11 percent volunteered. Those numbers rose to 56 percent and 24 percent among Christians.
Organizations from The World Bank to the Gates Foundation tout significant progress in the eradication of poverty, but critics note that the definition of poverty should be taken into consideration.
"Extreme global poverty" is defined in the study as the estimated 1.4 billion people outside the U.S. who "do not have access to clean water, enough food, sufficient clothing and shelter, or basic medicine like antibiotics." The World Bank defines extreme poverty as average daily consumption of $1.25 or less, and living on the "edge of subsistence."
Luz Claudio, chief of the Division of International Health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has worked in global health for over 20 years. In this time, she says, she has seen economic development and advancements in health and quality of life in countries that were previously considered "low income."
"Yes, those improvements have lifted some people in those countries out of what we defined as poverty 20 years ago," says Claudio.
"However, the gap between rich and poor has widened extravagantly around the world, and what we used to define as poverty may not apply anymore." Indeed, an Oxfam report on global inequality earlier this year reported that the 85 wealthiest people in the world own more wealth than the poorest 3 billion people combined.
Places that have long been equated with stubborn poverty, like Sub-Saharan Africa, have made improvements since the 1990s, but the largest gains have been in East Asia and the Pacific, where poverty rates have been cut in half since 1990, according to the World Bank. Much of this success has been in China alone, where 500 million people have been lifted from extreme poverty in that time.
Still, it's projected that through 2015, at least 1.1 billion people will live on less than $2 a day, the report says.