The Insecurity of Inequality

NEW YORK – Global inequality today is at a level last seen in the late nineteenth century – and it is continuing to rise. With it has come a surging sense of disenfranchisement that has fueled alienation and anger, and even bred nationalism and xenophobia. As people struggle to hold on to their shrinking share of the pie, their anxiety has created a political opening for opportunistic populists, shaking the world order in the process.

The gap between rich and poor nowadays is mind-boggling. Oxfam has observed that the world’s eight richest people now own as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion. As US Senator Bernie Sanders recently pointed out, the Walton family, which owns Walmart, now owns more wealth than the bottom 42% of the US population.

I can offer my own jarring comparison. Using Credit Suisse’s wealth database, I found that the total wealth of the world’s three richest people exceeds that of all the people in three countries – Angola, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – which together have a population of 122 million.

To be sure, great progress on reducing extreme poverty – defined as consumption of less than $1.90 per day – has been achieved in recent decades. In 1981, 42% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. By 2013 – the last year for which we have comprehensive data – that share had dropped to below 11%. Piecemeal evidence suggests that extreme poverty now stands just above 9%.