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Were People in the Past Poor and Miserable?

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  • Charles Kenny

Abstract

Standard economic theory would suggest close linkages between income, broader measures of the quality of life and 'utility'. To some extent it is hard to test the link between income and utility given the way that utility is proxied by economists, but we do have measures of objective and subjective wellbeing as a potential guide. When we look at broader measures of objective and subjective wellbeing in both rich and poor countries today, the relationship to absolute income is perhaps surprisingly weak. Turning to the past, we know that most people were in an absolute income sense very poor, and faced a considerably lower broad quality of life using objective measures. However, the link between these two factors is not as straightforward as sometimes assumed. At the same time, from the preoccupations of political thinkers and others, it does appear that relative (rather than absolute) income has long been a concern, and that concerns with absolute income at the national level appear to center around avoiding absolute deprivation rather than the advantage of ever more consumption goods. In short, there is plentiful evidence that people in the past were nearly all absolutely poor and broadly worse off according to other objective quality of life measures, less evidence that these two were intimately linked, even less that everyone was miserable, and less again that those who did feel miserable felt so because they were absolutely poor. Copyright 2006 Blackwell Publishing Ltd..

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  • Charles Kenny, 2006. "Were People in the Past Poor and Miserable?," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 59(2), pages 275-306, May.
  • Handle: RePEc:bla:kyklos:v:59:y:2006:i:2:p:275-306
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Rafael Di Tella & Robert J. MacCulloch & Andrew J. Oswald, 2003. "The Macroeconomics of Happiness," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 85(4), pages 809-827, November.
    2. Fogel,Robert William, 2004. "The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521808781.
    3. Moore, Mick & Leavy, Jennifer & Houtzager, Peter & White, Howard, 1999. "Polity qualities: how governance affects poverty," MPRA Paper 9467, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    4. John Komlos, 1994. "Stature, Living Standards, and Economic Development: Essays in Anthropometric History," Books by John Komlos, Department of Economics, University of Munich, number 11.
    5. Michael R. Haines & Lee A. Craig & Thomas Weiss, 2000. "Development, Health, Nutrition, and Mortality: The Case of the 'Antebellum Puzzle' in the United States," NBER Historical Working Papers 0130, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Daniel J. Zizzo & Andrew J. Oswald, 2001. "Are People Willing to Pay to Reduce Others'Incomes?," Annals of Economics and Statistics, GENES, issue 63-64, pages 39-65.
    7. Joseph P. Ferrie & Werner Troesken, 2005. "Death and the City: Chicago's Mortality Transition, 1850-1925," NBER Working Papers 11427, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    Cited by:

    1. Christian Breuer & Horst Rottmann, 2014. "Do Labor Market Institutions Influence Suicide Mortality? An International Panel Data Analysis," CESifo Working Paper Series 4875, CESifo Group Munich.
    2. Easterlin, Richard A. & Angelescu McVey, Laura, 2007. "Modern Economic Growth and Quality of Life: Cross Sectional and Time Series Evidence," IZA Discussion Papers 2755, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    3. Rottmann, Horst, 2014. "Do unemployment benefits and employment protection influence suicide mortality? An international panel data analysis," Weidener Diskussionspapiere 42, University of Applied Sciences Amberg-Weiden (OTH).
    4. Alberto Chilosi, 2010. "Poverty, Population, Inequality, and Development: the Historical Perspective," European Journal of Comparative Economics, Cattaneo University (LIUC), vol. 7(2), pages 469-501, December.
    5. Chilosi, Alberto, 2008. "Poverty, Population, Development In Historical Perspective," MPRA Paper 7214, University Library of Munich, Germany.

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