Politics of Poverty

Global inequality is terrible and getting worse

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Oxfam's latest report outlines how the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population –more than 3.6 billion people - has fallen by a trillion dollars (41 percent) since 2010. Meanwhile the wealth of the richest 62 people has increased by more than half a trillion dollars to $1.76 trillion.

Oxfam has been a consistent broken record on global inequality. But for good reason.

Yesterday, Oxfam launched the latest in a series of papers pointing out the scale and trends of global inequality.  The paper is pegged to the exclusive annual summit at Davos where the captains of capitalism gather every year to ponder the world.  We’ve gotten lots of attention, and been criticized from both right and left.  Surely that means we’re doing something right!

This year, the top findings are more startling than ever:

  • Just 62 people – 53 men and 9 women – own the same wealth as half the world.  Five years ago that figure was 388 people.  Wealth is rapidly concentrating.
  • The richest 1% now own more than rest of the world combined.
  • The average annual income of the poorest 10% of the people in the world has risen by less than $3 in almost a quarter century. Their daily income has risen by less than a single cent every year.
  • Tax dodging by multinational companies costs the world’s poorest countries an estimated $100 billion every year.
  • Corporate investment in tax havens almost quadrupled between 2000 and 2014.

While some have called our numbers “made up” or “bogus” others have called our report “the party pooper report ahead of Davos.” So why does Oxfam keep launching papers ahead of the Davos summit that ring the alarm on inequality?

Two reasons: because it’s important and because it works.

It’s important because growing economic inequality is not an inconvenience or a passing problem. If the analysis is right, the scale of the problem is much bigger than people believe and the trend is getting worse.  And while inequality is bad for all of us, it’s worst for the poorest among us. In fact, inequality threatens to dramatically roll back the progress we’ve made in fighting poverty the last couple of decades.

When we started raising a flag on this issue, there weren’t many institutions and politicians talking about growing economic inequality.  But then came Thomas Piketty, President Obama, the IMF, Robert Reich, Joe Stiglitz, the Ford Foundation and so many others who have taken the banner and carried it forward.

Together, we have forced the issue of growing inequality squarely into public debate.  But arguing about a problem is not the same as doing something about it.  As Alcoholics Anonymous says, the first step to recovery is recognizing you have a problem.  But that first step is not recovery.  We need a 12-step program to take on and reverse growing economic inequality.  So, we’re trying to move the conversation toward action. We think ending the era of tax havens and tax avoidance by rich people and international corporations is one of those steps to recovery.  Tax havens are not the sole source of the problem of growing inequality, but ending them is part of the solution.

The annual summit of oligarchs at Davos is one of the few events where many of the protagonists of economic inequality are present and in the audience.  Journalists are looking for stories.  Leaders are looking to say something and learn something.   Davos and the carnival around it offer us at Oxfam a chance to be part of that conversation, and to bring much needed attention on the issue of inequality.  Don’t hate us for using the tools we have.

My colleague Debra Hardoon, who wrote this year’s report, worked with Credit Suisse and Forbes to produce the analysis, and we are grateful for all of their efforts.  And special thanks to Branko Milanovic and Gabriel Zucman who assisted with income data and analysis.

Most importantly, we must give props to the World Economic Forum, which hosts the Davos summit, for  ringing the alarm bell about growing inequality for years now.

Hopefully, the conversation will continue, and eventually lead to action.

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