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Person Equivalent Headcount Measures of Poverty


  • Tony Castleman

    (Institute for International Economic Policy, George Washington University)

  • James E. Foster

    (Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), Oxford Department of International Development, Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford)

  • Stephen C. Smith

    (George Washington University)


Headcount meatures of poverty are by far the most common tools for evaluating poverty and gauging progress in global development goals. The headcount ratio, or prevalence of poverty, and the headcount, or the number of the poor, both convey tangible information about poverty. But both ignore the depth of poverty, so they arguably present distorted views of the spatial distribution of poverty as well as the extent of progress against poverty over time. Additionally, headcount measures can provide incentives for policymakers to focus their effects on the least poor, an observation well understood among policymakers themselves. While other poverty measures mitigate these problems by capturing the intensity as well as the prevalence of poverty, they are often dismissed from the policy discourse as being too unintiutive to have traction. Theere is a need for poverty measures that go beyond traditional headcount measures, but retain their direct interpretation. This paper presents person equivalent (p. e.) headcount measures, which do just that. Our approach draws on the logic of full-time equivalent jobs, adult equivalent incomes, and other constructs in economics. An initial period is used to calibrate the average depth of poverty among the poor, which then becomes the "person equivalent" underlying the p. e. headcount and the p. e. headcount ratio. We illustrate our methods using $1.25 a day poverty data from 80 countries as provided by the World Bank, and show how the new measures map out different pictures of poverty and progress than traditional headcount measures. Overall, the picture is one of a more rapid decline in global poverty, but with significant redistributions of its burden across regions and countries. For example, p. e. headcounts are much higher than traditional headcounts in Latin America and the Caribbean and Sub Saharan Africa; in South Asia and East Asia and the Pacific the reverse is true. In Nigeria the traditional headcount rose by 28 million and p. e. headcount rose by 50 million; in South Africa the p. e. headcount fell by more than the traditional headcount. We discuss properties of the new measures, outline some generalizations and conclude with recommendations for using this approach in development goals to track progress and direct policy.

Suggested Citation

  • Tony Castleman & James E. Foster & Stephen C. Smith, 2015. "Person Equivalent Headcount Measures of Poverty," Working Papers 2015-10, The George Washington University, Institute for International Economic Policy.
  • Handle: RePEc:gwi:wpaper:2015-10

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Foster, James & Greer, Joel & Thorbecke, Erik, 1984. "A Class of Decomposable Poverty Measures," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 52(3), pages 761-766, May.
    2. James Foster & Suman Seth & Michael Lokshin & Zurab Sajaia, 2013. "A Unified Approach to Measuring Poverty and Inequality--Theory and Practice : Streamlined Analysis with ADePT Software," World Bank Publications, The World Bank, number 13731, July.
    3. Basu, Kaushik & Van, Pham Hoang, 1998. "The Economics of Child Labor," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(3), pages 412-427, June.
    4. Atkinson, Anthony B., 1970. "On the measurement of inequality," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 2(3), pages 244-263, September.
    5. Alkire, Sabina & Foster, James & Seth, Suman & Santos, Maria Emma & Roche, Jose Manuel & Ballon, Paola, 2015. "Multidimensional Poverty Measurement and Analysis," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780199689491.
    6. Alkire, Sabina & Foster, James, 2011. "Counting and multidimensional poverty measurement," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 95(7), pages 476-487.
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    More about this item


    Poverty measurement; headcount; poverty gap; FGT indices; development goals; inclusive growth; multidimensional poverty;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • I32 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - Measurement and Analysis of Poverty
    • O15 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Economic Development: Human Resources; Human Development; Income Distribution; Migration
    • D63 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement

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