The Greatest Story Never Told

The results of a recent survey show that more than two-thirds of Americans believe the number of people in the world living in poverty is increasing.

Fortunately, they're wrong. The World Bank says since 1981 the percentage of the world's population living on less than $1.25 a day has dropped from 50 percent to just more than 20 percent.    

According to the Barna Group survey, fully 8 in 10 Americans are unaware of the whole story:  poverty hasn't just declined, but has dropped precipitously.

Obviously, raising this many people out of dire poverty is very good news. It is arguably the best thing that has ever happened. So why don't more people -- including intelligent, otherwise knowledgeable Americans -- know about it?

Because the people who are responsible for providing you with the news -- that is, the news media -- haven't told you. There are several reasons for their failure. Some are benign, while others are less innocent. Let's take a look:

1) It's good news. Everyone complains that newspapers focus on bad news, but they do so for a very good reason: People are more interested in bad news. Essayist Peter Diamandis says there is a biological basis for our attraction to bad news, one brought about by our evolutionary need to be alert to danger. The news media take advantage of this predisposition by not only leading with what bleeds, but also by keeping us in suspense about potential dangers. The latter is the source of the old joke about the television news ad: “World to end tonight at 10. Details at 11.”

2) The decline in poverty numbers is largely the result of the decline in the state management of capital -- as in socialism and communism. Because most members of the media are liberal, many had a vested emotional and intellectual interest in seeing socialism improve the conditions of the poor. The fact that socialism didn't, and can't, is embarrassing. The fact that evil capitalism can and has is even worse.

When I visited China in 1980, there wasn't a single privately owned automobile in the entire nation. On that trip we were introduced to a new kind of economic development program that China had just begun -- a “Special Enterprise Zone” where investors could engage in profit-making activities. Thirty-five years later there are weeks-long traffic jams of private cars in China -- all because of these special enterprise zones.

3) In order to assuage their undeserved sense of guilt, left-leaners in “rich” countries have long insisted we send lots of tax dollars overseas to help the poor. Unfortunately, the record is now clear. Foreign aid doesn't help but rather hurts the receiving countries. In those places where the money actually moves beyond the kleptocrats in control it reduces initiative and creates false economies. Or as Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade recently said, it puts out of business local entrepreneurs. “Who can compete with free?” is her succinct comment on aid.

4) Wade also notes that many progressives continue to hold romantic notions about life lived in abject poverty. She provides an example: “These folks who are protesting a new dam in Africa or South America. I tell them the production of electricity would make these people's lives better but we can't do that. Why? Because you like the conditions they live in better.”

“I think quite frankly, deep down, it goes back to not seeing the other person as your equal. It's that simple.”

She notes that some, especially environmentalists, worry that if everyone in the world lives like those in the West, “we'll never make it.”

“I ask them, 'How about we switch?  How about I send your ass over there and then they move over here? Why not if you love it so much, and think it's so great.”

5) The decline in world poverty is made all the more astounding because it occurred as the population of those living in the world's developing nations rose by 60 percent. That debunks the left's dearly held notion that overpopulation causes poverty. And that means there is no pressing need for the left's thinly disguised efforts at promoting eugenics to reduce the numbers of those they consider members of the world's less desirable races. 

6) Some of the true heroes in this story are among the most hated corporations in the United States. Chief among them: Walmart. On that subject, Michael Strong, a libertarian author (and occasional contributor to American Thinker), had this to say: “Between 1990 and 2002 more than 174 million people escaped poverty in China, about 1.2 million per month. With an estimated $23 billion in Chinese exports in 2005, Walmart might well be single-handedly responsible for bringing about 38,000 people out of poverty a month -- about 460,000 per year.”

“Even without considering the $263 billion in consumer savings that Walmart provides for low-income Americans, or the millions lifted out of poverty by Walmart in other developing nations, it is unlikely that there is any single organization on the planet that alleviates poverty so effectively for so many people.”

By 2010 Walmart had upped the ante, purchasing more than $30 billion a year in Chinese goods.

7) Alleviating poverty is a complex issue. Covering complex issues is where the collective media is at its worst. We can thank Scott Adams, the genius behind "Dilbert", for explaining the dynamic: “Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same.”

That is especially true today with declining payrolls at newspapers and networks throughout the U.S. No one has the time to do the complex stories.

So, what does this all mean?  According to the same Barna Group poll, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) are convinced it's impossible to end extreme global poverty in the next 25 years.

If you believe that, why try?

Theodore Dawes was a reporter, editor, and publisher for more than 30 years. These days he's a consultant and speaker on media relations.  For more of his columns, see Theodore Dawes. To contact Ted, drop a line