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To Help the World's Poor, Give Them Real Jobs

Harvesting sugarcane in a field in the outskirts of Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India, on February 19
Harvesting sugarcane in a field in the outskirts of Modinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India, on February 19Photograph by Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg

The latest U.S. jobs numbers showed a U.S. unemployment rate still at 7.6 percent. The official global unemployment rate, compiled by the International Labor Organization (ILO), is around 6 percent—which suggests American workers are worse off than their counterparts worldwide. But that statistic is deeply misleading. Unemployment is, by and large, a luxury of rich countries. Billions of people across the world are stuck working long hours in subsistence farming, hawking, or other informal occupations, desperate for a job that provides a weekly wage packet. Solving this underemployment problem is the biggest key to the challenge of economic development worldwide.

In surveys about people’s biggest concerns worldwide, income and employment pretty much always come out on top (PDF). Polls across countries also suggest that losing a job is one of the biggest possible hits to self-reported happiness. At a first glance at the data, you might think the misery of joblessness was a rich-world problem. According to the ILO, Pakistan has an unemployment rate of just 5.2 percent, for example, and India’s is at 4.2 percent.