300 years of global writing on poverty in one graph

“There have been significant changes in attitudes to poverty over the last three centuries, away from complacent acceptance, and even contempt for poor people, to the view that society, the economy and government should be judged in part at least by their success in reducing poverty. There are a number of possible explanations for this change. Greater overall affluence in the world has probably made it harder to excuse poverty. Expanding democracy has given new political voice to poor people. And new knowledge about poverty has created the potential for more well-informed action.

Word counts from Google Books suggest that there was a pronounced “Poverty Enlightenment” in the latter half of the 18th century, with a seven-fold increase in the incidence of references to poverty between 1740 and 1790. The all-time annual record level of references to poverty (as a proportion of all words) was in 1787.

poverty refs in google booksBut attention faded after that. If the late 18th century gave birth to the modern idea of distributive justice, based on the notion that a minimum standard of living should be attainable by all members of society, then it seems that the idea died a slow death in the public consciousness for the next 170 years.

In both English and French, a second “Poverty Enlightenment” only emerged in the latter part of the 20th century. Within 10 years the incidence of the word “poverty” in English- language Google Books had exceeded its level even in 1800. The latter half of the 20th century saw a doubling in the incidence of references to poverty. Averaging over a few years either side, the peak in the average incidence of references to poverty was around 2000. This Second Poverty Enlightenment came with a similar (proportionate) increase in references to economics, which provided a deeper set of models for understanding poverty. It also came with rising awareness of poverty in developing countries.

In the English language, the word “inequality” has been used far less than “poverty.” This was not true in the French language books. Until the late 20th century, “inégalité” was as prominent as “pauvreté” (more so in the late 18th century). And the French texts referred less to poverty and more to inequality than the English texts, though there are strong signs of convergence between the two languages toward the end of the 20th century.”

From an intriguing new paper by the World Bank’s Martin Ravallion. The first peak came two years before the French Revolution. Wonder what comes next?

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