An urban slum in Hanoi, Viet Nam. (Photo: Flickr / United Nations / Creative Commons)
world's 85 richest individuals possess as much wealth as the 3.5
billion souls who compose the poorer half of the world's population, or
so it was announced in a report by Oxfam International. The assertion
sounds implausible to me. I think the 85 richest individuals, who
together are worth many hundreds of billions of dollars, must have far more wealth
than the poorest half of our global population.
How could these two cohorts, the 85 richest and 3.5 billion poorest,
have the same amount of wealth? The great majority of the 3.5 billion
have no net wealth at all. Hundreds of millions of them have jobs that
hardly pay enough to feed their families. Millions of them rely on
supplements from private charity and public assistance when they can.
Hundreds of millions are undernourished, suffer food insecurity, or go
hungry each month, including many among the very poorest in the United
"The number of people living in poverty is
growing at a faster rate than the world's population. So poverty is
spreading even as wealth accumulates. It is not enough to bemoan this
enormous inequality, we must also explain why it is happening."
Most of the 3.5 billion earn an average of $2.50 a day. The poorest
40 percent of the world population accounts for just 5 percent of all
global income. About 80 percent of all humanity live on less than $10 a
day. And the poorest 50 percent maintain only 7.2 percent of the
world's private consumption. How exactly could they have accumulated an
amount of surplus wealth comparable to the 85 filthy richest?
Hundreds of millions live in debt even in "affluent" countries like
the United States. They face health care debts, credit card debts,
college tuition debts, and so on. Many, probably most who own homes—and
don't live in shacks or under bridges or in old vans—are still straddled
with mortgages. This means their net family wealth is negative,
minus-zero. They have no propertied wealth; they live in debt.
Millions among the poorest 50 percent in the world may have cars but
most of them also have car payments. They are driving in debt. In
countries like Indonesia, for the millions without private vehicles,
there are the overloaded, battered buses, poorly maintained vehicles
that specialize in breakdowns and ravine plunges. Among the lowest rungs
of the 50 percent are the many who pick thru garbage dumps and send
their kids off to work in grim, soul-destroying sweatshops.
The 85 richest in the world probably include the four members of the
Walton family (owners of Wal-Mart, among the top ten superrich in the
USA) who together are worth over $100 billion. Rich families like the
DuPonts have controlling interests in giant corporations like General
Motors, Coca-Cola, and United Brands. They own about forty manorial
estates and private museums in Delaware alone and have set up 31
tax-exempt foundations. The superrich in America and in many other
countries find ways, legal and illegal, to shelter much of their wealth
in secret accounts. We don't really know how very rich the very rich
Regarding the poorest portion of the world population—whom I would
call the valiant, struggling "better half"—what mass configuration of
wealth could we possibly be talking about? The aggregate wealth
possessed by the 85 super-richest individuals, and the aggregate wealth
owned by the world's 3.5 billion poorest, are of different dimensions
and different natures. Can we really compare private jets, mansions,
landed estates, super luxury vacation retreats, luxury apartments,
luxury condos, and luxury cars, not to mention hundreds of billions
of dollars in equities, bonds, commercial properties, art works,
antiques, etc.—can we really compare all that enormous wealth against
some millions of used cars, used furniture, and used television sets,
many of which are ready to break down? Of what resale value if any, are
such minor durable-use commodities, especially in communities of high
unemployment, dismal health and housing conditions, no running water, no
decent sanitation facilities, etc? We don't really know how poor the
very poor really are.
Millions of children who number in the lower 50 percent never see the
inside of a school. Instead they labor in mills, mines and on farms,
under conditions of peonage. Nearly a billion people are unable to read
or write. The number of people living in poverty is growing at a faster
rate than the world's population. So poverty is spreading even as
wealth accumulates. It is not enough to bemoan this enormous inequality,
we must also explain why it is happening.
But for now, let me repeat: the world's richest 85 individuals do not
have the same amount of accumulated wealth as the world's poorest 50
percent. They have vastly more. The multitude on the lower rungs—even
taken as a totality—have next to nothing.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Michael Parenti's recent books include: God and His Demons
(Prometheus), Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader
(City Lights); Democracy for the Few
, 9th ed. (Wadsworth); The Assassination of Julius Caesar
(New Press), Superpatriotism
(City Lights), and The Culture Struggle
(Seven Stories Press). For further information, visit his website: www.michaelparenti.org
Post a Comment