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Mariela Baeva
Mariela Baeva
Member of the European Parliament for Bulgaria
2007 - 2009
(first direct EP elections in Bulgaria);

LEED to OECD partner (Nanotech)

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Young people in partnership with @Theirworld demanded action on the #GlobalEducationCrisis and world leaders have listened. #IFFEd will unlock billions for children globally and help deliver a world where every child has a place in school. #LetMeLearn

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Nous venons de signer cette lettre ouverte pour demander aux chefs d’Etat et de gouvernement de faire de l’école gratuite pour tous les enfants un droit humain universel.

Poverty, then and now. Part 1, Rich Man, Poor Man*

Well into the 19th century, poverty was widely seen as inevitable: Economists estimate that in 1820 around 84% of the earth’s population lived in absolute poverty, or on the equivalent what we now call “a dollar a day” (it’s actually $1.25). Poverty was also seen as useful: “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious,” the English writer and traveller Arthur Young wrote in 1771.

That quote comes from a fascinating paper by Martin Ravallion, which traces – from an economist’s perspective – the great shift in attitudes towards poverty over the past three centuries. For much of that time, poverty was regarded as necessary: “True, it was miserable for the poor,” as The Economist commented recently. “But it also kept the economic engine humming by ensuring the availability of plentiful cheap labour.” Not just cheap, but uneducated: “To make the Society happy and People easy under the meanest Circumstances, it is requisite that great Numbers of them should be Ignorant as well as Poor,” the 18th century economist Bernard de Mandeville wrote.

When did attitudes change? Ravallion traces the beginnings of the First Poverty Enlightenment to the late 18th century, and the coming together of several key ideas, such as the French Revolution’s “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which established a moral case for regarding the poor as equal human beings. Later, industrialisation would help make the case for mass education, which raised individuals’ economic prospects. Over time, acceptance also grew for the construction of social safety nets and at least some income distribution.

Relative poverty is typically calculated as the number of people living below a “poverty line”. For developed countries, the OECD places the line at 50% of median income. Median income is the point in the income range  (after taxes are paid and state transfers received) that separates the top 50% of earners from the bottom 50%.

Between the mid-1980s and the late 2000s, relative poverty rose in 16 of 19 OECD countries for which data are available, and there has also been an uptick in child poverty. As a recent Unicef report said, children living in relative poverty are “to some significant extent excluded from the advantages and opportunities which most children in that particular society would consider normal”.

Those disadvantages are especially clear in education, where the OECD’s PISA assessments have shown a clear link between family background and how well students do in high school. And they continue in tertiary education: If your parents went to university, the odds rise substantially that you’ll go too.

Many experts argue that these patterns of educational disadvantage are set very early in a child’s life, and that more needs to be done tackle them by investing heavily in pre-school and early education. But rallying support can be difficult: The benefits can take decades to appear and, as The Economist noted recently, some critics argue that such early interventions represent overreach by the state.

More than two centuries on from the era of Arthur Young, it’s clear we no longer believe that people should be kept poor or deprived of educational opportunities. But, it seems, we’re still figuring out how best to ensure that these opportunities reach everyone.

*excerpts from OECD Insight Blog

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