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Global Inequality and Global Poverty Since the Cold War: How robust is the optimistic narrative?

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Peter Edward



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of a book chapter that has been published in its final definitive form by Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd, 2017.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


This paper considers how the growth in global consumption since the end of the Cold War, has impacted on the co-evolution of global inequality and poverty. It is often suggested that this era of growth has led to a dramatic reduction in global poverty and to the emergence of both a new global middle class and a more equal world. We argue that this dominant and optimistic narrative on globalisation since the Cold War is considerably more methodologically fragile than it at first seems. Further, we suggest that this has implications for the UN goal to end global poverty by 2030. The fall in inequality is almost exclusively attributable to the effect that the rise of China has had on between-country inequality. Changes in global inequality across the rest of the world are much more modest. Much heralded falls in global poverty have raised the consumption of the poorest, but the extent to which that is the case depends on where one draws the global poverty line as at the lower end of the global distribution a change of just 10c can remove 100 million people from global poverty headcounts. If one takes instead the average poverty line for all countries (a more genuinely global poverty line) of $5 per day poverty headcounts have hardly changed since the Cold War. Meanwhile, the numbers living at risk of sliding back into poverty (between $1.90 and $10 a day) grew by 1.6bn, compared to a rise of 1.1bn in the numbers living above this level, and around half of those living above this level saw their share of global consumption fall. We suggest therefore that the dominant or optimistic narrative, of falling poverty and an emerging ‘middle class’ largely free from the threat of poverty, disguises both considerable growth in the size of the ‘global precariat’ living in conditions that most in the developed world would consider to be well below ‘middle class’ and an erosion of the financial security of a significant proportion of those living at higher consumption levels.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Edward P, Sumner A

Editor(s): Van Bergeijk, PAG;Van Der Hoeven, R

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: Sustainable Development Goals and Income Inequality

Year: 2017

Pages: 74-97

Print publication date: 24/11/2017

Acceptance date: 05/01/2017

Publisher: Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd

Place Published: Gloucestershire, UK


Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9781788110273


Link to this publication