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Tony Atkinson (1944 – 2017) and the measurement of global poverty

Francisco Ferreira's picture

Sir Anthony Atkinson, who was Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Fellow of Nuffield College at Oxford, passed away on New Year’s Day, at the age of 72. Tony was a highly distinguished economist: He was a Fellow of the British Academy and a past president of the Econometric Society, the European Economic Association, the International Economic Association and the Royal Economic Society.  He was also an exceedingly decent, kind and generous man.

Although his contributions to economics are wide-ranging, his main field was Public Economics. He was an editor of the Journal of Public Economics for 25 years, and his textbook “Lectures on Public Economics”, co-authored with Joe Stiglitz in 1980, remains a key reference for graduate students to this day. Within the broad field of public economics, Tony published path-breaking work on the measurement, causes and consequences of poverty and inequality – from his early work on Lorenz dominance in 1970, all the way to his more recent joint work with Piketty, Saez and others on the study of top incomes. Over his 50-year academic career, he taught, supervised and examined a large number of PhD students, some of whom came to work at the World Bank at some point in their careers.

The poverty line’s battle lines

Kaushik Basu's picture

For a long time, as a college professor and then as the chief economic adviser to the Indian government, I was a happy user of the World Bank’s data on global poverty, tracking trends and analyzing cross-country patterns. I seldom paused to think about how those numbers were computed. Then, three years ago, I joined the World Bank as its Chief Economist. It was like a customer, happily ordering dinner in a favorite restaurant, suddenly being asked to go into the kitchen and prepare the meal.

The international poverty line has just been raised to $1.90 a day, but global poverty is basically unchanged. How is that even possible?

Francisco Ferreira's picture

World Bank researchers have been trying to assess the extent of extreme poverty across the world since 1979 and more systematically since the World Development Report 1990, which introduced the dollar-a-day international poverty line. From the beginning, the idea was to measure income poverty with respect to a demanding line which, first, reflects the standards of absolute poverty in the world’s poorest countries and, second, corresponded to the same real level of well-being in all countries. The first requirement led researchers to anchor the international poverty line on the national poverty lines of very poor developing countries. And the second requirement led them to use purchasing power parity exchange rates (PPPs) – rather than nominal ones - to convert the line into the US dollar and, more importantly, into the currencies of each developing country.