Where Is Life Better…?

February 14, 2014

This is a joint post with Christian Meyer. 

Last week, we sat down with Lawrence to record a Wonkcast on our new working paper The Median is the Message: A Good-Enough Measure of Material Well-Being and Shared Development Progress. In the paper, we argue that survey-based median household consumption expenditure (or income) per capita should be incorporated into standard development indicators, as a simple, robust, and durable indicator of typical individual material well-being in a country.

In the Wonkcast, Lawrence asked us for examples of countries where the median would be strikingly different from more commonly used measures such as GNI per capita – cases where the median would tell us more about the well-being of the typical person. That question inspired us to put together the picture below.

Gabon looks richer than Thailand using GNI per capita, but you would be more likely to have a better life (in material terms, anyway) in Thailand.  And the typical person in Cameroon is four times better off (in material terms) than in “richer” Zambia. In Gabon and Zambia we can guess that income is highly concentrated at the top of the distribution because they are rich in natural resources. (Go here for more about that.) In China the typical person at the middle of the distribution lives in a rural area; her far richer counterparts in urban China represent a smaller portion of the total population, creating the false impression that it is better to be the typical Chinese person than the typical Moldovan.

For other striking comparisons like this (and more wonkish arguments about why we should pay attention to the median) check out our paper and let us know what you think.




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