The dollar-a-day definition of global destitution made its debut in the bank’s 1990 World Development Report. It was largely the discovery of Martin Ravallion, a researcher at the bank, and two co-authors, who noticed that the national poverty lines of half-a-dozen developing countries clustered around that amount. In two working papers* published this week, Mr Ravallion and two colleagues, Shaohua Chen and Prem Sangraula, revisit the dollar-a-day line in light of the bank’s new estimates of purchasing power. They also provide a new count of China’s poor.
Thanks to American inflation, $1.08 in 1993 was worth about $1.45 in 2005 money. In principle, the researchers could count the number of people living on less than this amount, converted into local money using the bank’s new PPP rates. But $1.45 a day strikes the authors as a bit high. Rather than update their poverty line, they propose to abandon it. It is time, they say, to return to first principles, repeating the exercise Mr Ravallion performed almost two decades ago, using the better, more abundant data available now.
For practical purposes, policymakers will always care more about their own national poverty lines than the bank’s global standard. The dollar-a-day line is more of a campaigning tool than a guide to policy. And as a slogan, $1.25 just doesn’t have the same ring to it. A better option might be to reset the poverty line at $1 in 2005 PPP, which would line up reasonably well with at least ten countries in the authors’ sample. In adding a quarter to the dollar-a-day poverty line, the researchers may cut its popular appeal by half.
A re- look at the “dollar a day” line for measuring poverty may increase the number of poor below poverty line in China by 300m.