One Number Reveals Just How Bad Global Income Inequality Has Become

Source: AP
Source: AP

1820: That's the last year global income inequality was at the level it is now. 

A new report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reveals that income inequality between rich and poor citizens around the world is at the same place it was nearly two centuries ago, while inequality between countries has gotten much worse.

The data uses Gini coefficients — a measure of income distribution on a scale of 1 (perfectly equal) to 100 (one person owns everything in a country) — to assess the rise and fall of income inequality around the world. The report looked at two big factors: inequality within and between countries, as well as one figure that treats the world's population as if it makes up one big country.

Take a look:

Source: OECD

Why did this happen? The OECD attributes the drop in inequality within countries from 1929 to 1980 to an "egalitarian revolution" — including a big rise in communism — that reversed itself in the 1990s and beyond. Inequality between countries jumped up quickly, but has remained relatively steady (and even dropped slightly) over the past half-century.

You can see the change by looking at worldwide income distribution over time. While more people tend to hold more money over time, the richest of the rich balloon in the past few decades.

Source: OECD

Despite this, overall quality of life has improved: There are lots of other factors in the report that have unequivocally improved since 1820. Life expectancy worldwide was 27 years in the 1880s, according to the report. Currently it's up to 69. Literacy has also improved: About 80% of people can read now, compared to less than 20% in 1820.

And let's not forget height. Average height worldwide has increased by 7 centimeters since 1820, likely meaning more people can dunk a basketball now than ever before. The report does not delve into this, but such an ability may be the truest measure of happiness there is.

Source: OECD

Despite these strides, income inequality looms large as a major global issue. There are a lot of ways life is better now than it was in 1820. Income inequality, though, doesn't seem to be one of them. Here's to the 2180 OECD report having some better news on that front.

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Matt Connolly

Matt has written for Mother Jones, the Washington Examiner and Chicago Public Radio among many others. He's a resident of Washington, D.C., but much like Bruce Springsteen and pork roll he is a product of New Jersey.

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