Is life for most people getting easier or harder? If you're like most Americans, I'm guessing you might answer that it's getting harder. And yet, taking the most basic measurements and looking at the entire globe, you pretty much have to say that life is getting better.

That's a simple point the very-data-driven Bill Gates made early in 2019 with this tweet:

He is, of course, looking at the entire global population, whereas most of us in the Northern Hemisphere don't always think much about people in the Southern Hemisphere, where most of the world's poorest nations are located. Even so, some with expertise in world poverty took Gates to task, arguing that the United Nations' measure of $1.90 a day (or its equivalent in consumption) as the line for extreme poverty is setting the bar too low and that a more appropriate threshold would be $7.40 day. By that measure, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has fallen more slowly, from about 71 percent in 1981 to about 58 percent in 2013, and due to population growth in poor countries, the absolute number of people in extreme poverty has risen.

That's not good. Neither is the fact that income inequality is also on the rise worldwide. But it remains true that the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, however you define that term, is on the decline. So are infant and child mortality, with 96 percent of children now surviving to the age of five, up from 57 percent 200 years ago. About 85 percent of the world's population can now read and write whereas 50 years ago, it was less than half. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof notes, much of this increase in literacy has been led by improved educational opportunities for women worldwide, including in some cultures where women had received little or no education in the past.

Coming online.

In 2018, for the first time, more than half the people on Earth had Internet access, and about 63 percent now have a mobile phone. The "World Wide Web" is finally living up to its name. If you grew up with internet access or, like me, you didn't but have come to depend on it for absolutely everything, you can understand how much of a game-changer this is.

I'll admit it feels odd to be writing this in a week when churchgoers in Texas and Jews in New York have been attacked merely for practicing their faith, when angry protesters are storming the U.S. embassy in Iraq, when North Korea is threatening nuclear tests and when Australia is suffering through the highest temperatures and worst wildfires on record, so far. Because of climate change there's probably worse to come, both there and here. 

Still, New Year's is a time for looking at the big picture. And, as Our World in Data founder puts it, the big picture is this: "The world is much better, the world is awful, the world can be much better." It's up to us all to work toward that future in 2020.

Published on: Dec 31, 2019
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