The Two Poverty Enlightenments: Historical Insights from Digitized Books Spanning Three Centuries, By Martin Ravallion, World Bank Policy Research Paper no. 5549

We often track the popularity of a celebrity or a fad by counting the number of searches on Google, or how often it is mentioned on Twitter. But what if we could search books through the centuries to see how often certain words were used? Martin Ravallion, the well-known researcher on poverty, has searched the Google Books’ digitized database for the word “poverty" using the Google Books Ngram Viewer from the year 1700 right up to 2000. The results may be taken as a proxy for how much concern about poverty loomed in the public consciousness through the centuries.

The results are surprising. References to poverty in the books peaked in the late 18th century, at the time of the French and American revolutions. After that, the word poverty started appearing less and less often, right up to 1960. Ravallion says this could be because poverty was seen as inevitable in the 19th century and even economists did not believe that poverty could be alleviated. Here’s what Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, had to say: “Whenever there is great prosperity, there is great inequality. For one very rich man, there must be at least 500 poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many." Ravallion points out that it was often argued at the time that raising wage rates would reduce wealth accumulation by reducing labour supply and would make exports uncompetitive. It’s remarkable how these arguments are also used today to oppose the hike in wage rates under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, on the plea that it has led to labour shortages during harvesting in Punjab.

The Google Books search, however, finds a sharp increase in references to poverty since 1960 and Ravallion says that’s because of the rediscovery of poverty in the US and popular revulsion at the presence of poverty in the midst of plenty.

He cites two books, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and Michael Harrington’s The Other America, both best-sellers, as having a huge influence in bringing poverty back to the centre of discussion. The two peaks in references to poverty are called “the two poverty enlightenments".

But something similar must also have happened in France, because the trend in French books is more or less similar to that in the English database, apart from more references to equality, perhaps due to equality being one of the ideals of the French Revolution. Ravallion points out that “as poverty falls with overall economic development, the capacity of an economy to address the problem of poverty increases, which probably attracts attention to the problem in the literature".

Incidentally, the references have continued to increase despite a sea change in attitudes since the 1980s, which saw a turning away from the welfare state in several countries.

Perhaps this could be due to increasing attention given to poverty in developing countries, but it also signifies a different attitude towards poverty. Nobody today argues that poverty is due to the lazy poor or that poverty cannot be alleviated. The paper also tracks the popularity of several other related terms. To give one example, references to the right-wing Chicago School of economics start exceeding references to the more middle-of-the-road Keynesian economics from around 1960 and peak in the early 1990s. In short, using the technology of searching digitized texts has opened up a new window on assessing the prominence of ideas through the centuries.

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