Place and Poverty (Part I)

Written by Lisa R. Pruitt

I’ve been thinking a lot (and writing some, too) about the links between poverty and place for several years, spurred by my interest in rural populations and critical geography.  I have become increasingly convinced that place plays a profound role in who is impoverished and who isn’t.  Think about how unevenly our own nation is developed and the spatial inequalities that result in terms of access to education, jobs, and both public and private services.  (Some recent articles are here and here).

So it’s not surprising that this item recently in the New York Times caught my eye:  “Was Today’s Poverty Determined in 1000 BC?”  The story by Catherine Rampell reports on a recent study by Diego Comin, William Easterly and Erick Gong.  They gathered “gathered crude information on the state of technological development in various parts of the world in 1000 B.C.; around the birth of Jesus; and in A.D. 1500” and then compared this to current per capita income in today’s nation states.   Rampell’s report is accompanied by a scatterplot that depicts the relationship between a country’s present wealth and the state of its technological development in A.D. 1500.  It turns out that the latter is “an extraordinarily reliable predictor” of the former.

Easterly writes, “78 percent of the difference in income between sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe is explained by technology differences that already existed in 1500 A.D.–even BEFORE the salve trade and colonialism.”  In some cases, gaps in technology across regions go back as far as 1000 B.C.  Easterly argues that “advanced technology begets more advanced technology” because it facilitates innovation.  Rampell helpfully explains that Easterly is a well known naysayer regarding foreign aid programs.  In other words, he was known for his fatalism regarding the future of the developing world prior to this most recent study.

Rampell also reports an alternative explanation for these current disparities in affluence, an explanation espoused by John Luke Gallup, Jefferey D. Sachs and Andrew Mellinger.  They see geography as destiny not in relation to early technological developments, but in relation to location and climate, which affect “disease, transportation costs, and agricultural productivity.”

I could offer many observations on this recent study and the two competing explanations for disparities in wealth between the global north and the global south, but I’ll limit myself to two in this post.

First, as someone who typically thinks about poverty metrics and poverty entrenchment at a low scale, e.g., the census block, school district, or county level, this study is a reminder of vast place-related inequities at the global scale.  It’s therefore also a reminder to progressive scholars to consider the scale at which we should be seeking some degree of parity among peoples.

Second, regarding the focus of Easterly et al on technology, my sense is that the capital and power that accompany technology are more important predictors of future wealth than the technology itself.   After all, especially in this day and age (if not so easily five centuries ago), technology can be transferred … but under intellectual property regimes, only at a price.  The “haves” of the global north thereby limit technology’s use, which also requires capital to implement.  Thus, only those with access to capital can take advantage of technology, wherever the technology itself is developed.

That the world remains so grossly unevenly developed is surely as much a function of who was wealthy 500 years ago as it is of scientific or technological prowess, even if the latter also dates back hundreds, even thousands of years–and even if those long-ago inventions spawned the wealth.  In short, technology begets technology which begets wealth primarily because wealth begets wealth.  Place really comes into it only at the level of global regions.

(Click here for a recent study on spatial inequalities with respect to the invention of patentable technology in contemporary Europe).