I read something shocking in a Dutch newspaper this week: the 85 richest people in the world possess just as much money as the 3.5 billion poorest people combined (De Volkskrant January 20, 2014). I mean we already knew that income is distributed unevenly, but 85 versus 3.5 billion?
Just to get some perspective on this: three point five billion is 3,500,000,000, that is half the world population, about 11 times the population of the United States, or 1400 times the population of Brooklyn. The newspaper article is referencing a new study by Oxfam Novib presented on the World Economic Forum in Davos. The study further states that the richest 1% owns $110 trillion which is 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world owns.
Oxfam Novib believes that this inequity will eventually lead to political instability and further raises social issues, which in turn will lead to other inequalities, such as those between men and women.
If nothing is done, the impact will be irreversible and an "opportunity take-over" will take place where only the children of the richest can benefit from the best education and healthcare and who in turn will perpetuate this for the generations following them.
When I first came to New York from Europe, I was taken aback by the poverty that I witnessed here compared to what I was used to. There is poverty in The Netherlands too, but the rich are less rich and the poor are less poor. This is partly because of the advanced social welfare and tax systems.
Here in Brooklyn, through my work, I come in contact with those that do not have enough money to feed their children, let alone themselves. According to the American Community Survey close to 1 out of every 4 individuals living in Brooklyn live below the poverty line, meaning that they make less that $11,500 per year for an individual or $23,500 for a family.
How can anyone even start living off $11,500 per year in New York? And how is it even possible that this situation exists in a developed country like the United States, where so many great writers, artists, scientific discoveries, etc. come from?
Well, it is possible because the minimum wage is New York is $8 and workers earning at that level don't even make $15,000 per year. It is also possible because in the United States the wealthiest one percent captured 95% of the economic growth since 2009 while the bottom 90% became poorer.
This shows that this country is ruled by the rich few, who are operating out of self interest (and for good measure participate in charity work) and they keep the poor at the economic bottom. I do not believe in conspiracy theories however.
It is not literally a group of let's say 85 people that come together once a month and discuss the best way to keep the poor away from life's opportunities. It is something that has evolved over time through systems that were put into effect and that now run as well oiled machines.
Examples include taxes, government funding allocations, elections, and district rezoning. You can argue that government is a mess, but a mess for whom? Not for the rich I would say.
Not all is lost though. There are examples of success. For example both Europe and the United States have decreased inequality over the past 30 years while growing prosperous. Latin America has significantly reduced inequality in the last decades through the institution of progressive taxation, public services, and workforce programs.
In Quebec anti-poverty legislation lead to a 25% reduction in poverty over a 10 year period. And in Marinaleda (Spain, Europe) the poverty problem has been solved altogether with unemployment at 0% through a set of income redistribution programs that include land appropriations and equal wages policies.
I have another idea. Why don't the 85 wealthiest people of this world come together at some luxurious resort on some tropical island and while enjoying cocktails, cigars, and caviar, agree on giving up some of their wealth. Not all of it -- they can still have enough to be filthy rich. Only just enough to solve poverty. Is that too much to ask?