The world's most deprived

Characteristics and causes of extreme poverty and hunger

Who are the Poorest and Where do They Live?

One billion people live on less than $1 a day, the threshold defined by the international community as constituting extreme poverty, below which survival is questionable. That number encompasses a multitude of people living in varying degrees of poverty—all of them poor, but some even more desperately poor than others. To better answer the question of whether the very poorest are being reached, we first divided the population living on less than $1 a day into three categories according to the depth of their poverty:

This allowed us to look below the dollar a-day poverty line to determine who the poorest people are, where they live, and how each group has fared over time. We found that 162 million people live in ultra poverty on less than 50 cents a day. This is a significant number of people: if all of the ultra poor were concentrated in a single nation, it would be the world’s seventh most populous country after China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, and Pakistan.

As it is, the ultra poor are overwhelmingly concentrated in one region—Sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than three-quarters of the world’s ultra poor. Sub-Saharan Africa is also the only region in the world in which there are more ultra poor than medial or subjacent poor. In contrast, most of Asia’s poor live just below the dollar-a-day line; only a small minority of the population is ultra poor.

By examining the three categories of poverty, we see that while remarkable progress has been made in some regions, progress against poverty and hunger has been slow in regions where poverty and hunger are severe. Between 1990 and 2004, East Asia and the Pacific experienced a substantial reduction in the number of subjacent, medial, and ultra poor. In South Asia, the number of subjacent poor actually increased during that period, but at the same time, there was a significant decrease in the number of medial and ultra poor. Sub- Saharan Africa, in contrast, experienced increases in the number of poor people in each category, particularly in ultra poverty.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s lack of progress indicates that if current trends continue, improvements over the next seven years may reach people below the poverty line, but will largely exclude a large share of the world’s absolute poorest. The diverging experiences of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa call into question the assumptions behind economic growth models that predict a convergence between growth and poverty reduction. The severity of poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa and the limited progress in reducing it indicate that the poorest in Sub-Saharan Africa may be trapped in poverty. To better understand this dynamic, we calculated the amount by which poverty would have been reduced in each category if everyone’s income had grown by the same amount between 1990 and 2004. We compare this “equal growth scenario” with the amount of poverty reduction that actually took place during this period.

We found that progress against poverty has been slower for people living well below the dollar-a-day line. Had poverty reduction been equal in all three categories, the proportion of people living in ultra poverty would have declined by 3.6 percent. In actuality, the proportion declined by only 1.4 percent, less than half the expected rate. However, there are marked regional differences. In East Asia and the Pacific, rapid economic growth has benefited all groups nearly equally, while in Sub-Saharan Africa those in ultra poverty are being substantially left behind in what little progress against poverty has been achieved in the region.

Ahmed, Akhter U.
Hill, Ruth Vargas
Smith, Lisa C.
Wiesmann, Doris M.
Frankenberger, Tim
Gulati, Kajal
Quabili, Wahidand
Yohannes, Yisehac
Published date: 
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Series number: 
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