Global Poverty Is on the Decline, But Almost No One Believes It

Research Releases in Culture & Media • April 28, 2014

If you said no—if you thought the number had gone up; that more people, not less, live in extreme poverty—you aren't alone. According to a recent Barna Group survey, done in partnership with Compassion International and the new book Hope Rising by Dr. Scott Todd, more than eight in 10 Americans (84%) are unaware global poverty has reduced so drastically. More than two-thirds (67%) say they thought global poverty was on the rise over the past three decades.

Similarly, while both child deaths and deaths caused by HIV/AIDS have decreased worldwide, many Americans wrongly think these numbers are on the rise: 50% of US adults believe child deaths have increased since 1990, and 35% believe deaths from HIV/AIDS have increased in the past five years.

Despite the very real good news, more than two-thirds of US adults (68%) say they do not believe it's possible to end extreme global poverty within the next 25 years. Sadly, concern about extreme global poverty—defined in this study as the estimated 1.4 billion people in countries outside the US who do not have access to clean water, enough food, sufficient clothing and shelter, or basic medicine like antibiotics—has declined from 21% in 2011 to 16% in 2013.

How does this sense of fatalism about global economic and health issues affect Americans' view of the developing world? Does it hinder charitable giving? And are Christians' views any different?

The Cost of Ignorance
Practicing Christians are, in fact, more likely to believe it's possible to end extreme global poverty in the next 25 years. Practicing Christians under 40 are the most optimistic at nearly half (48%), with practicing Christians over 40 slightly higher than the general population (37% compared to 32% of all adults).

Would knowing that extreme poverty can be eliminated make a difference in how Americans behave? The general population is split on this question, with 45% of US adults saying such knowledge makes them more likely to do significantly more to help the effort and 55% saying it wouldn't make a difference in their behavior. Among Christians, however, knowing global poverty is eradicable would make a more dramatic difference. Nearly two-thirds of practicing Protestants (62%) and practicing Christians under 40 (64%) say such knowledge would motivate them to do more to help in the coming year.

Why Not?
What keeps most people from believing extreme global poverty can be eradicated in the next quarter century? People's answers generally fall into one of five categories: (1) 21% believe poverty is simply inevitable and will always exist; (2) 20% don't think enough people care about the issue; (3) 17% feel there is not enough of a collective global effort; (4) 17% can't get past the enormity of the problem; or (5) 14% do not trust what they see as corrupt governments in impoverished countries.

Even if they did believe poverty was eradicable, there are major barriers to people giving and doing more. What makes them hesitate? For many Americans, it's a distrust of corrupt local governments (59%). For others, it's a belief that US money should be spent on needs at home (55%). And still others admit they just don't know what organizations to trust with their money and time (56%).

Some Bright Spots
Practicing Christians feel a strong sense of responsibility about helping the poor. More than four in 10 practicing Christians under age 40 (44%) strongly agree that Christians have a particular responsibility to help solve global poverty; three in 10 of those over 40 say the same. Only 18% of all adults think Christians have a special responsibility toward the global poor.

In the past year, practicing Christians have helped the global poor in a variety of ways—and they are significantly more likely than the general population to have done so.

Donations are still the most common way Christians and non-Christians alike serve the global poor. Last year, about four in 10 adults (39%) donated to a non-profit organization to help people in extreme poverty. On average, they donated about $5 a month. These numbers are higher among practicing Christians: 56% donated last year at an average of $15 a month for those over 40 and $10 a month for those under 40.

Fewer people are likely to have volunteered for a poverty-related cause in the past year. Practicing Christians, however, are still more likely than the general population to have spent time working to end global poverty. Among all adults, 14% volunteered for a church and 11% volunteered for a non-profit to help the global poor. Among practicing Christians, one-third of those over 40 volunteered at a church to help the global poor and about one-quarter (24%) did so at a non-profit. Among those under age 40, 36% volunteered at a church to help the global poor and one-fifth (21%) did so at a non-profit.

When asked what more they'd like to do in the coming year to help the global poor, Americans are most eager to donate more money (44%). After that, they see how curbing their own waste and consumption could help the poor (19%). About one-sixth (15%) say they'll volunteer more; one in 10 want to advocate; and 4% say they'd like to pray more.

What the Research Means
David Kinnaman directed the study and highlighted several implications of the research. "First, most adults don't realize the recent and very real progress that has been made in addressing extreme forms of global poverty. Despite all the attention paid to such progress—such as Bono's TED talk and data from the World Bank—most adults are unaware or unconvinced. This lack of awareness likely leads some people to low levels of engagement: If nothing can be done about it, why should I do anything?

Second, practicing Christians are more concerned about and engaged with global poverty than the broader US adult population. Still, Christians tend to think of the issue as a problem with a financial cure—that is, a crisis that must be addressed exclusively through charitable giving, rather than through prayer and service as well.

Finally, poverty is not exclusively a young person's cause, by any stretch, but younger Christians do tend to be more activated than older Christians in addressing extreme poverty. Churches that effectively engage this issue stand to gain credibility among younger generations."

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About the Research
The research included in this report is the result of a nationwide online study conducted December 11 to December 28, 2013. The survey included 1,463 US adults 18 years of age and older. An oversample of 411 young Christians ages 18 to 34 was also conducted. The sampling error for the total US adult population (N=1,463) is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

The comparative study was conducted from September 8 to September 15, 2011. A total of 1,429 surveys were completed, including 1,010 with the general population of US adults and an oversample of 419 young Christians.

Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

The online study was based on a probability panel, which means that respondents are recruited for inclusion in the research based on physical mailing addresses, not an opt-in online panel. Those randomly selected households without Internet access are provided an Internet-enabled device to complete surveys.

People are identified as having a "practicing" faith if they have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.

About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

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© Barna Group, 2014