Efforts to reduce rates of international poverty have been increasingly successful in recent decades, despite evidence that most people believe the problem has actually gotten worse and may be unsolvable. A sharp disconnect between reality and perception is revealed in a recent survey by a philanthropic organization that is justifiably concerned that an ingrained pessimism about the issue may impede progress in further reducing global poverty.
If people think a problem can’t be solved, they are less likely to contribute to a solution, according to the Barna Group, a research firm focused on faith and culture. "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 the Barna Group’s David Kinnaman, who directed the study.
Research shows that since the 1980s, the number of people living in “extreme poverty,” as defined by the World Health Organization, has dropped by more than half — from about 52 percent to about 21 percent. The drop has been attributed to a variety of factors tied largely to a general increase in the economic and political stability in several developing nations.
Nevertheless, the Barna Group survey shows 67 percent of Americans believe poverty has gone up during that period. The survey also suggests a reverse correlation between the number of people who believe the problem is worsening and those willing to volunteer time, money and other resources to anti-poverty organizations.
The attitudinal discrepancies come about partly as a result of efforts by anti-poverty groups to portray the problem as one of crisis proportions so they may better solicit sympathy and contributions.
“It's ironic because the more poverty organizations draw attention to the issue, the more they make it easy for people to believe that it's an enormous, intractable problem,” says Clint Jenkin, the Barna Group’s vice president of research. "When trying to raise money, they have to convince people of the need, but also convince them that it's getting better."
It is indeed important that people are aware of progress in such a critical area. Optimism deserves prominence over the kind of cynicism that has apparently taken root among those unaware of the strides made during the course of a single generation.
The data also reveal a side to the debate over income inequality across the world that is not often raised — that while the wealthy are getting wealthier, the poor are enjoying increasing wealth as well.
Economists and policymakers may differ on the long-term impact of wealth inequality, but the headway made in helping large numbers of people emerge from conditions of deep poverty needs to be acknowledged and appreciated so that progress can continue.