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PAGE ONE Economics

®

Why Are Some Countries Rich
and Others Poor?
Scott A. Wolla, Ph.D., Senior Economic Education Specialist

GLOSSARY
Factors of production: The natural resources,
human resources, and capital resources
that are available to make goods and
services. Also known as productive
resources.
Capital resources: Goods that have been
produced and are used to produce other
goods and services. They are used over
and over again in the production process.
Also called capital goods and physical
capital.
Standard of living: A measure of the goods
and services available to each person in
a country; a measure of economic wellbeing. Also known as per capita real GDP
(gross domestic product).
Trade barrier: A government-imposed
restriction on the international trade of
goods or services.

“Open markets offer the only realistic hope of pulling billions of people
in developing countries out of abject poverty, while sustaining prosperity
in the industrialized world.”1
—Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General

Many people mark the birth of economics as the publication of Adam
Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Actually, this classic’s full title is
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and Smith
does indeed attempt to explain why some nations achieve wealth and
others fail to do so. Yet, in the 241 years since the book’s publication, the
gap between rich countries and poor countries has grown even larger.
Economists are still refining their answer to the original question: Why
are some countries rich and others poor, and what can be done about it?

“Rich” and “Poor”
In common language, the terms “rich” and “poor” are often used in a relative sense: A “poor” person has less income, wealth, goods, or services than
a “rich” person. When considering nations, economists often use gross
domestic product (GDP) per capita as an indicator of average economic
well-being within a country. GDP is the total market value, expressed in
dollars, of all final goods and services produced in an economy in a given
year. In a sense, a country’s GDP is like its yearly income. So, dividing a particular country’s GDP by its population is an estimate of how much income,
on average, the economy produces per person (per capita) per year. In
other words, GDP per capita is a measure of a nation’s standard of living.
For example, in 2016, GDP per capita was $57,467 in the United States,
$42,158 in Canada, $27,539 in South Korea, $8,123 in China, $1,513 in Ghana,
and $455 in Liberia (Figure 1).2
Because GDP per capita is simply GDP divided by the population, it is a
measure of income as if it were divided equally among the population. In
reality, there can be large differences in the incomes of people within a
country. So, even in a country with relatively low GDP, some people will
be better off than others. And, there are poor people in very wealthy countries. In 2013 (the most recent year comprehensive data on global poverty

September 2017	

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Figure 1
The Average Standard of Living Varies Widely Among Countries

2

Institutions Matter
Property rights refers to the ability of people and businesses to
own land and capital. Ownership enables people to produce, buy,
and sell goods and services and to profit from business ventures.
The right to own private property also includes the ability to sell
that property. Without secure property rights, not many people
would be willing to start a business, buy a house or land, or invest.
Free and open markets refers to the ability of people and businesses to buy and sell goods and services with minimal interference by government. This is a balancing act: While government
provides protection for its citizens through its regulations, too
much regulation can make economic transactions unprofitable
and unattractive.

NOTE: Liberia’s GDP per capita of $455 is included but not visible due to the
scale. The Republic of Korea is the official name of South Korea.
SOURCE: World Bank, retrieved from FRED®, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis;
https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=eMGq, accessed July 26, 2017.

are available), 767 million people, or 10.7 percent of the
world population, were estimated to be living below the
international poverty line of $1.90 per person per day.3
Whether for people or nations, the key to escaping poverty lies in rising levels of income. For nations specifically,
which measure wealth in terms of GDP, escaping poverty
requires increasing the amount of output (per person)
that their economy produces. In short, economic growth
enables countries to escape poverty.

How Do Economies Grow?
Economic growth is a sustained rise over time in a nation’s
production of goods and services. How can a country
increase its production? Well, an economy’s production
is a function of its inputs, or factors of production
(natural resources, labor resources, and capital resources),
and the productivity of those factors (specifically the productivity of labor and capital resources), which is called
total factor productivity (TFP). Consider a shoe factory.
Total shoe production is a function of the inputs (raw
materials such as leather, labor supplied by workers, and
capital resources, which are the tools and equipment in
the factory), but it also depends on how skilled the workers
are and how useful the equipment is. Now, imagine two
factories with the same number of workers. In the first
factory, workers with basic skills move goods around with
push carts, assemble goods with hand tools, and work
at benches. In the second factory, highly trained workers
use motorized forklifts to move pallets of goods and

Rule of law holds that the law—not individual government
leaders—governs a nation and that the government, government
leaders, and all people must follow the law. The rule of law provides a sense of stability and certainty for economic transactions.
For example, people and businesses are more likely to invest for
the future if they feel confident that the “rules of the game” will
be stable, rather than in a state of constant change.

power tools to assemble goods that move along a conveyer belt. Because the second factory has higher TFP,
it will have higher output, earn greater income, and provide higher wages for its workers. Similarly, for a country,
higher TFP will result in a higher rate of economic growth.
A higher rate of economic growth means more goods
are produced per person, which creates higher incomes
and enables more people to escape poverty at a faster
rate. But, how can nations increase TFP to escape poverty?
While there are many factors to consider, two stand out.

Institutions
First, institutions matter. For an economist, institutions
are the “rules of the game” that create the incentives for
people and businesses. For example, when people are
able to earn a profit from their work or business, they
have an incentive not only to produce but also to continually improve their method of production. The “rules
of the game” help determine the economic incentive to
produce. On the flip side, if people are not monetarily
rewarded for their work or business, or if the benefits of
their production are likely to be taken away or lost, the
incentive to produce will diminish. For this reason, many
economists suggest that institutions such as property
rights, free and open markets, and the rule of law (see
the boxed insert) provide the best incentives and opportunities for individuals to produce goods and services.

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North and South Korea often serve as an example of the
importance of institutions. In a sense they are a natural
experiment. These two nations share a common history,
culture, and ethnicity. In 1953 these nations were formally
divided and governed by very different governments.
North Korea is a dictatorial communist nation where
property rights and free and open markets are largely
absent and the rule of law is repressed. In South Korea,
institutions provide strong incentives for innovation
and productivity. The results? North Korea is among the
poorest nations in the world, while South Korea is among
the richest.4
While this seems like a simple relationship—if government provides strong property rights, free markets, and
the rule of law, markets will thrive and the economy will
grow—research suggests that the “institution story”
alone does not provide a complete picture. In some
cases, government support is important to the development of a nation’s economy. Closer inspection shows
that the economic transformation in South Korea, which
started in the 1960s, was under the dictatorial rule of
Park Chung-hee (who redirected the nation’s economic
focus on export-driven industry), not under conditions
of strong property rights, free markets, and the rule of
law (which came later).5 South Korea’s move toward industrialization was an important first step in its economic
development (see South Korea’s growth in Figure 2).
China is another example of an economy that has grown
dramatically. In a single generation it has been transformed from a backward agrarian nation into a manufacturing powerhouse. China tried market reforms during
the Qing dynasty (whose modernization reforms started
in 1860 and lasted until its overthrow in 1911) and the
Republic Era (1912-1949), but they were not effective.
China’s economic transformation began in 1978 under
Deng Xiaoping, who imposed a government-led initiative to support industrialization and the development of
markets, both internally and for export of Chinese goods.6
These early government-supported changes helped
develop the markets necessary for the current, dramatic
increase in economic growth (see Figure 2).

Trade
Second, international trade is an important part of the
economic growth story for most countries. Think about

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3

Figure 2
Some Countries Have Been More Successful at Escaping Poverty
Than Others

NOTE: While the Republic of Korea (the official name of South Korea), China,
Ghana, and Liberia had similar standards of living in 1970, they have developed
differently since then.
SOURCE: World Bank, retrieved from FRED®, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis;
https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=eMGt, accessed July 26, 2017.

two kids in the school cafeteria trading a granola bar for
a chocolate chip cookie. They are willing to trade because
it offers them both an opportunity to benefit. Nations
trade for the same reason. When poorer nations use
trade to access capital goods (such as advanced technology and equipment), they can increase their TFP,
resulting in a higher rate of economic growth.7 Also,
trade provides a broader market for a country to sell the
goods and services it produces. Many nations, however,
have trade barriers that restrict their access to trade.
Recent research suggests that the removal of trade barriers could close the income gap between rich and poor
countries by 50 percent.8

Conclusion
Economic growth of less-developed economies is key to
closing the gap between rich and poor countries. Dif­
ferences in the economic growth rate of nations often
come down to differences in inputs (factors of production) and differences in TFP—the productivity of labor
and capital resources. Higher productivity promotes faster
economic growth, and faster growth allows a nation to
escape poverty. Factors that can increase productivity
(and growth) include institutions that provide incentives
for innovation and production. In some cases, government can play an important part in the development of
a nation’s economy. Finally, increasing access to inter-

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national trade can provide markets for the goods produced by less-developed countries and also increase productivity by increasing the access to capital resources. n

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6

Wen, Yi and Fortier, George E. “The Visible Hand: The Role of Government in
China’s Long-Awaited Industrial Revolution.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
Review, Third Quarter 2016, 98(3), pp. 189-226;
https://dx.doi.org/10.20955/r.2016.189-226.
7 Santacreu, Ana Maria. “Convergence in Productivity, R&D Intensity, and Technology

Notes
1

Globalist. “Kofi Annan on Global Futures.” February 6, 2011;
https://www.theglobalist.com/kofi-annan-on-global-futures/.
2

Data from the World Bank retrieved from FRED®;
https://fred.stlouisfed.org/graph/?g=erxy, accessed July 26, 2017.

Adoption.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Economic Synopses, No. 11, 2017;
https://doi.org/10.20955/es.2017.11.
8

Mutreja, Piyusha; Ravikumar, B. and Sposi, Michael J. “Capital Goods Trade and
Economic Development.” Working Paper No. 2014-012, Federal Reserve Bank of
St. Louis, 2014; https://research.stlouisfed.org/wp/2014/2014-012.pdf.

3 World Bank. “Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016: Taking on Equality.” 2016, p. 4;

http://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/poverty-and-shared-prosperity.
4

Olson, Mancur. “Big Bills Left on the Sidewalk: Why Some Nations are Rich, and
Others Poor.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Spring 1996, 10(2), pp. 3-24.
5

Wen, Yi and Wolla, Scott. “China’s Rapid Economic Rise: A New Application of
an Old Recipe. Social Education.” Social Education, March/April 2017, 81(2),
pp. 93-97.

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Name___________________________________ Period_______
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Page One Economics ®:
“Why Are Some Countries Rich and Others Poor?”

After reading the article, complete the following:
1.	 Why is GDP per capita used as an estimate of the average standard of living in a country?

2.	 Why is economic growth key for countries who want to escape poverty?

3.	 How do institutions increase total factor productivity (TFP) and create incentives for economic growth?

4.	
	
	
	

The “institutional theory” suggests that by establishing property rights, free and open markets, and the rule of law, 	
a country will create the incentives necessary for markets to develop and the economy to grow without much 	
other government intervention. Describe how evidence from South Korea and China suggests that, in some cases, 	
government must play a larger role.

5.	 How can international trade increase TFP within a country?


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