Improving Living Standards

April 10, 2000

By almost every measure imaginable, the human condition has improved dramatically over the past 200 years. People today are better fed, clothed and housed than they were two centuries ago. They also are healthier, live longer and are better educated. Women's lives have especially improved as they have become less centered on reproduction.

According to economist Richard A. Easterlin, a number of factors have contributed to this improvement in living standards:

  • Industrialization, which multiplied productive output, was the most significant factor in raising living standards.
  • A revolution in medical science and sanitation increased life expectancies by wiping out or containing communicable diseases -- once the primary cause of infant mortality.
  • In the developed and developing world, women are no longer tied to childbearing, resulting in a dramatic decline in fertility rates.
  • And where literacy in many countries was in the single digits at the beginning of the 19th century, there is now no major region of the world where it does not exceed 50 percent.

In 1848, John Stuart Mill wrote that it was "only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object." But contrary to his assumption that England was reaching a developed state in which economic growth would cease, living standards have improved to an extent inconceivable in Mill's day -- and England itself enjoys a per capita gross domestic product seven times greater than in 1850.

Source: Richard A. Easterlin, "The Worldwide Standard of Living Since 1800," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Winter 2000.

 

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