Awareness of poverty over three centuries

Martin Ravallion 14 February 2011



Public awareness of poverty could well be at its historical peak. Figure 1 plots references to the word “poverty” in Google Books from 1700-2000. This is a moving average of the incidence of that word, normalised by the total number of words in the books published that year.1  We see that there was a seven-fold increase in the incidence of references to poverty between 1740 and 1790. Toward the end of the Enlightenment, around the time of the French and American Revolutions, there was what I will call a “Poverty Enlightenment.” But attention then faded through the 19th and 20th centuries. A significant awakening of attention to poverty – a second Poverty Enlightenment – came around 1960. The peak in the average incidence of references to poverty was around 2000, when the available series ends.

Figure 1. Incidence of references to poverty in Google Books 1700-2000

What lies behind these two Poverty Enlightenments? In a recent paper (Ravallion 2011), I have tried to answer this question by combining the rapid word-counting power of the Google Books Ngram Viewer (the Viewer hereafter) with my (much slower) reading of the historical texts.

The first Poverty Enlightenment

In his excellent history of the idea of distributive justice, Samuel Fleischacker (2004, p.7) argues that in pre-modern times, “the poor appeared to be a particularly vicious class of people, a class of people who deserved nothing”. In the early 18th century, Robert Moss instructed the poor man “to rest contented with that state or condition in which it hath pleased God to rank him”. The French doctor and moralist Philippe Hecquet wrote in 1740 that “The poor are like the shadows in a painting: they provide the necessary contrast”. To the extent that any effort was made to explain poverty it was seen as either “God’s will” or a purely private matter, stemming from bad personal behaviour, such as laziness. Indeed, hunger was often seen as a good thing, as it motivated poor people to work.

A new questioning of longstanding social ranks emerged in the later 18th century, most notably in France. In the 1780s, The Marriage of Figaro, a play by Pierre Baumarchais, had Parisian audiences taking side with the servants in laughing at the aristocracy. Some of this new egalitarian spirit spilled across the English Channel, though it met with some stiff resistance. In 1806 Patrick Colquhoun, the founder of the police force in England, wrote that poverty “is a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilisation.”

The first Poverty Enlightenment was the time when poverty started to be seen as a politico-economic outcome rather than the manifestation of some natural order. Poor people started to aspire to be otherwise. But poverty was still widely accepted in the literature as a more-or-less inevitable fact of life. The economics of the 18th and 19th centuries did not offer any serious challenge to this view. Some economists saw poverty as an essential condition for economic development. No doubt it was agreed that rising real wage rates would reduce poverty, but it was argued that this would undermine wealth accumulation by reducing labour supply and (in the Mercantilist schema) making exports uncompetitive, and even corrupting the values of workers as they aspired to luxury goods. Thomas Malthus famously saw ecological disaster ahead, with poverty and famine as the only check against rising population. Nor did Adam Smith – far more optimistic than Malthus about the scope for overall social progress – entertain much hope that the fruits of economic development would be equitably distributed; Smith (1776, p.232) wrote that: “Whenever there is great prosperity, there is great inequality. For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.”

The second Poverty Enlightenment

If Western Europe in 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, it seems that the idea died a slow death in the public consciousness for the next 170 years. But it stayed alive in scholarly writings. In economics around the turn of the 20th century, Alfred Marshall (1890) was asking in the opening pages of his Principles of Economics, “May we not outgrow the belief that poverty is necessary?” (p.2).

But the re-awakening of popular awareness – the second Poverty Enlightenment – did not arrive until the 1960s, and it was particularly striking in the US. In the wake of the civil rights movement, the rediscovery of poverty in the midst of affluence in mid-20th century America was stimulated by important social commentaries, including John Kenneth Galbraith’s (1958) The Affluent Society and Michael Harrington’s (1962) The Other America (both best sellers at the time). These helped initiate a political response in the US, including new social programs targeting poor families, under the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty.

Galbraith and Harrington wrote their books at the right time to have the influence they had, given the combination of new affluence for the majority and optimism, including about policy, that prevailed in America in the 1950s and 1960s. But as times changed, a backlash emerged. The counter-attack came in the 1980s (as exemplified by Charles Murray’s, 1984, Losing Ground), with welfare reforms following in the 1990s; 30 years after declaring a “War on Poverty,” America declared a “War on Welfare.” There are continuing debates today about poverty, its causes and the appropriate policy responses, throughout the world – echoing many of the debates of 200 years earlier, including on the extent to which poor people themselves are to be blamed for their poverty.

Another factor in the surge of attention to poverty in the late 20th century, was the public’s increasing awareness of the existence of severe and widespread poverty in the developing world, which started to attract global public attention in the 1970s. The World Bank’s (1990) World Development Report: Poverty was influential in development policy circles, and soon after a “world free of poverty” became the Bank’s overarching goal. A large body of empirical, survey-based, research on poverty followed in the 1990s.

Poverty and policies

The last three centuries have seen a shift away from complacent acceptance of poverty, 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.

The last 300 years have also seen large swings in attitudes toward markets and the state, including on the potential for effective government intervention. The post-WW2 period – the “golden age of government intervention” (Tanzi and Schuknecht 2000) – saw rising attention to a wide range of policies. The counterattack – based in some measure on economic analyses of the limitations of governmental solutions to economic problems, but also driven by an effective political mobilisation – started to gain ground in the late 1970s.

However, while the cycles of debate and reform continue, the written record does not suggest that the end of the golden age of government intervention came with a widespread diminution of interest in poverty. Indeed, the incidence of references to poverty (and inequality) followed a clear upward trend in the latter half of the 20th century and, since 1980, we have seen a steep increase in references to social policies, social protection and civil society organisations (Ravallion 2011) – no doubt (in part at least) as a reaction to rising public concerns about poverty and inequality.

Translating this peak of awareness of poverty at the outset of the 21st century into effective action is, of course, another matter. The second Poverty Enlightenment has entailed much debate and a mixed record of successes and failures in the fight against poverty. But it is at least encouraging that the recent rebirth of the resistance to government intervention that prevailed through most of the 19th century has not come with a return to that century’s complacent acceptance of the inevitability of poverty.


Fleischacker, Samuel (2004), A Short History of Distributive Justice, Harvard University Press.

Galbraith, John Kenneth (1958), The Affluent Society, Mariner Books.

Harrington, Michael (1962), The Other America: Poverty in the US, Macmillan.

Michel, Jean-Baptiste, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva P Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K Gray, The Google Books Team, Joseph P Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden (2010), “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books”, Science, 16 December.

Marshall, Alfred (1890), Principles of Economics (8th edition, 1920), Macmillan.

Murray, Charles A (1984), Losing Ground. American Social Policy 1950-1980, Basic Books.

Ravallion, Martin (2011), “The Two Poverty Enlightenments: Historical Insights from Digitized Books Spanning Three Centuries”, Policy Research Working Paper 5549, World Bank.

Smith, Adam (1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in Edwin Cannan (ed.), The Wealth of Nations, Chicago University Press.

Tanzi, Vito and Ludger Schuknecht (2000), Public Spending in the 20th Century: A Global Perspective, Cambridge University Press.

World Bank (1990), World Development Report: Poverty, Oxford University Press.

1 The graph is derived using the Google Books Ngram Viewer (Michel et al. 2010). The corpus of words and phrases was formed from 5.2 million books (a subset of all Google Books) and holds over 500 billion words. For discussion of the Viewer and its strengths and weaknesses (including possible biases) see Ravallion (2011).



Topics:  Frontiers of economic research Poverty and income inequality

Tags:  Poverty, Google

Edmond D. Villani Chair of Economics, Georgetown University


CEPR Policy Research