Life Expectancy and Poverty

Life Expectancy and Poverty are chapters 3 and 4 in “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future”  by Johan Norbert.  As the purpose of these blog posts is to update our mental models regarding how much change there has been between now and the past, only the nature of the improvements will be presented, and not the innovations that underlay the improvements.  As it is only a fraction of the improvements that are in the book can be related, so this is a matter of necessity or convenience, depending on your perspective.  If you are interested in the technology and practices that underlay these improvements, please read the book.  Indeed, everyone should benefit from reading this book.

There is an obvious relationship between the two as poverty negatively impacts life expectancy.  Chapter 3 begins,”Throughout humanity’s early history, life was nasty, brutish, and short.  More than anything, it was short because of disease, lack of food, and sanitation.  People died early, as infants or children, and mothers often died giving birth.  The high mortality rate was not primarily because of the prevalence of violence, but because of infectious disease, unsafe water, and bad sanitary conditions.  People lived close to animals, even in cities, and their wast infected their water sources.”

All large towns regularly suffered from the plague.  The plague was an infectious disease cause by bacteria that spread in the air and by physical contact.  Fleas on rats carried the disease.  The disease killed 3 out of 5 victims.  The worst manifestation of the plague was the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century.  It is estimated that it killed more than a third of Europe’s population.  It emptied entire villages and regions.  To some it seemed like the end of the world.  After this period of the Black Death the plague came back to haunt towns again and again until the eighteenth century.  In Besancon in eastern France, the plague was rerouted forty times between 1439 and 1640.

In the seventeenth century tuberculosis spread throughout Europe and was a major killer in the nineteenth century.  Some estimate that it caused nearly a quarter of all deaths.  Smallpox was a major cause of death and was a permanent presence in large cities.  However, in smaller towns and villages where it was rarer, no one developed immunity, so whole communities could be wiped out when they faced an epidemic.

This was before evidence-based medicine, so prayer was the commonest medicine.  There was little physicians could do.

During prehistoric times, the average hunter-gatherer is estimated to have had a life expectancy of from 20 to 30 years.  In spite of a more stable supply of food during the agricultural revolution, life expectancy did not improve much. According to some accounts life expectancy was reduced as larger settled groups were more exposed to infectious disease.   In Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, life expectancy has been estimated at around 18 to 25 years.  In medieval Britain, estimates range from 17 to 35 years.  Before the year 1800, no country in the world had a life expectancy higher than 40 years.

A research group on aging led by Oskar Burger at the Max Planck Institute has pointed that the bulk of humanity’s mortality reduction has been experienced by only the last 4 of the roughly 8,000 generations of homo sapiens since we evolved around 200,000 years ago.  In 1900, the average life expectancy in the world was 31.  Today, it is 71 years.

Abdel Omran, a professor of epidemiology has divided humanity’s relationship with mortality into three major successive stages.
The Age of Pestilence and Famine.
The Age of Receding Pandemics.
The Age of Degenerative and Man-Made Diseases.

Jane Jacobs has noted that poverty has no causes.  Only prosperity has causes.  Norbert writes that poverty is what  you have until you create wealth.  HM notes that many are born into wealth, so they do not need to create it.

In the old days that have been discussed, the accepted definition of poverty in a country like France was simple.  If you could afford to buy bread to survive another day, you were not poor.  In hard times, towns were filled with armies of poor, dressed in rags, begging for something to eat.

In 1564 in a town with a fortress and garrison, perhaps three-quarters of the failed in the town live in makeshift shelters.  In wealthy Genos, poor people sold themselves as galley slaves every winter.  In Paris, the very poor were chained together in pairs and forced to do the hard work of cleaning the stains.

Humanity had experienced almost no economic development until the early nineteenth century.  According to estimates by the economist Angus Maddison, GDP per capita increased by only 50% between the year 1 ice and 1820.  Of course people did not experience any increase in wealth during their own lifetimes.

In 1820 in the richest countries of western Europe the GDP per capita was the equivalent of around $1500 to $2000 (in 1990 dollars adjusted for purchasing power)  This is less than in present-day Mozambique and Pakistan.

In the early nineteenth century in the United States, Britain, and France, around 40 to 50% of the population lived in what we now call extreme poverty, a rate that you have to go to sub-Saharan Africa to find today.  Homelessness was a common problem.  Between 10% and 20% of the European and American population was classified as paupers and vagrants by officials.

Up until this time the dominant economic school was Mercantilism, in which poverty was necessary.  Adam Smith, in his “Wealth of Nations” disabused people of this and provided the basis for people to work and improve themselves. The Industrial Revolution came along, and, in spite of abuses, the economies began and continue to grown.  Different countries improved at different rates another was Communism.  Communism was still better than Mercantilism, and successful Communist countries opened up to some level of open markets.

Between 1981 and 2015  the population of low— and middle—income countries suffering from extreme poverty was reduced from 54% to 12 %.

If you have yet to do so, go to   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.


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