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Global Economics

The World’s 85 Richest Are Now Worth as Much as 3.5 Billion Poorest

A slum in Mumbai

Photograph by Frank Bienewald/Getty Images

A slum in Mumbai

The poorest half of the world’s population—that’s 3.5 billion people—control as much wealth as the richest 85 individuals.

On the eve of World Economic Forum, when the global elite gather in Davos, Switzerland, to forecast international trends, Oxfam International has released a new report, Working for the Few, (PDF) documenting yawning global wealth disparities. Other findings:

• The world’s richest 1 percent control almost 50 percent of global wealth.

• In 24 out of 26 countries studied, the richest 1 percent has increased their share of national wealth since 1980.

• Only three in 10 people live in countries where economic inequality has not increased over the past three decades.

• In the U.S., 95 percent of post-financial-crash wealth generated (i.e., since 2009) went into the bank accounts of the richest 1 percent.

• Nine in 10 people in the U.S. control less wealth in real terms than they did before the financial crash.

Quoting former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis—“We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both”—the report argues that further concentration of wealth and power “presents a significant threat to inclusive political and economic systems.” The upshot could be “heightening social tensions and increasing the risk of societal breakdown.”

That sounds bleak indeed. For a somewhat more optimistic take on the trajectory of the world’s poorest, a reader might turn to Bloomberg Businessweek contributor Charles Kenny’s book Getting Better, or regular dispatches on where and how global development actually is succeeding.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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