Tracking levels of world inequality can pose a variety of statistical challenges for researchers. Different nations, for starters, tally income and wealth in different ways, and some nations barely tally reliable stats at all. But researchers worldwide are increasingly taking on these challenges and below these charts we provide information on some of the most valuable data sources.
The share of the global population defined as “poor” — those making less than $2/day — has fallen since 2001 by nearly half, to 15 percent. Overall, the world has become “wealthier” compared to the turn of the millennium. Notably, those in the middle-income bracket making between $10 and $20/day have nearly doubled their global presence, from 7 to 13 percent.
Nearly three-quarters of the world’s adults own under $10,000 in wealth. This 71 percent of the world holds only 3 percent of global wealth. The world’s wealthiest individuals, those owning over $100,000 in assets, total only 8.1 percent of the global population but own 84.6 percent of global wealth.
Western and European countries host the lion’s share of the world’s millionaires. Some 78 percent of the world’s millionaires reside in Europe or North America, with nearly half of these millionaires calling the United State home. The only non-Western nations with a significant share of millionaires: the industrial powerhouses Japan, China, and Taiwan.
“Ultra high net worth individuals” — the wealth management industry’s term of art for deep pockets worth more than $30 million — hold an astoundingly disproportionate share of global wealth. These wealth owners own 12.8 percent of total global wealth, yet represent only a tiny fraction of the world population.
The world’s 10 richest billionaires, according to Forbes, own $505 billion in combined wealth, a sum greater than the total goods and services most nations produce on an annual basis.
Wealth disparity in the United States is running twice as wide — and more — as wealth gaps in the rest of the industrial world.
The top 1 percent in the United States hold an average $15 million in wealth, a total only comparable to the prosperous microstate of Luxembourg. No other nation’s top 1 percent own even half of the wealth the top 1 percent’s in the United States and Luxembourg hold.
Capemini and RBC Wealth Management define a “high net worth individual” as someone with at least $1 million in assets. The vast bulk of the world’s millionaires hold less than $5 million.
A small share of the world’s millionaire population holds a large majority of world millionaire wealth.
The United States dominates the global population of high net worth individuals, with over 4.3 million individuals owning at least $1 million in financial assets (not including their primary residence or consumer goods).
The United States has become home to more than twice as many adults with at least $50 million in assets as the next five nations with the most super rich combined.
The middle class in the United States has less than half the wealth share of middle classes in much of the rest of the developed world.
The United States has more wealth than any other nation. But America’s top-heavy distribution of wealth leaves typical American adults with far less wealth than their counterparts in other industrial nations.
Scholars connected with the Luxembourg Income Study have created a cross-national data archive, for both income and wealth, that seeks to address the challenges of collecting comparable data on world inequality. But this project remains more a basic resource for researchers than a source of information for the general public.
The World Top Incomes Database
This interactive online initiative from the Paris School of Economics and three partner groups offers scholars and the general public alike a more accessible window into the incomes of the globe’s most affluent. Visitors to the site can graphically compare, over time, the income shares of the wealthy in 23 different nations. And the comparisons enabled can drill all the way to a nation’s most affluent 0.01 percent.
In more recent years, a number of global financial industry firms have been releasing their own annual calculations on worldwide wealth concentration. Among these efforts: the from Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management, the report from the Boston Consulting Group, the from the Singapore-based Wealth-X and the Swiss bank UBS, the from the German bank Allianz, and the from the Knight Frank property management group.
Each of these reports takes a slightly different approach to tallying up concentrated wealth. Capgemini and RBC, for instance, look at “high net worth individuals,” affluent individuals who hold personal fortunes worth at least $1 million, excluding primary residences, collectibles, and consumer goods. The Boston Consulting Group analyze millionaire households. Wealth-X and UBS researchers place their statistical emphasis on deep pockets worth at least $30 million.
The most ambitious of all the annual financial industry wealth reports comes out of the Credit Suisse Research Institute in Zurich. Credit Suisse’s estimates the net worth — both financial and “real” assets like housing — for all the world’s adults. In 2015, Credit Suisse researchers estimate, individuals holding over $1 million in wealth — the richest 0.7 percent of adults globally — held 45.2 percent of global net worth.
The best estimates for wealth’s concentration at the global economic summit come from Forbes magazine. Forbes annually tallies the fortunes of the world’s billionaires.
As of March 2016, Forbes reported that the world hosted 1,810 billionaires, over double the 793 billionaires Forbes counted in 2009, at the depth of the Great Recession. These 1,810 billionaires together hold $6.5 trillion in wealth.
The 3.4 billion adults in the world with less than $10,000 to their name, Credit Suisse noted in October 2015, together hold $7.4 trillion in net worth, a $200 billion decrease from the previous year’s estimate of $7.6 trillion net worth.
The Global Big Picture
Branko Milanovic, a senior scholar with the Luxembourg Income Survey now at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, has done the world’s most rigorous research on the global income inequality picture. he published research finding that inequality within nations is increasing, but inequality worldwide seems to be slightly decreasing as middle classes emerge in China and India and the incomes of typical families in the United States and other rich countries stagnate and even, after inflation, decrease. But this slight worldwide decrease in overall inequality, Milanovich cautions, may be somewhat illusory since available national data regularly underestimate top 1 percent incomes and global tax havens conceal still more income at the economic summit. In 2016, he published Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, showing how global inequality moves in cycles, fueled by war and disease, technological disruption, access to education, and redistribution.
In 2006, scholars with the United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research published the first paper to tally, for the entire world, all the major elements of household wealth, everything from financial assets and debts to land, homes, and other tangible property. This research, based on year 2000 data, found that the richest 1 percent of world adults, individuals worth at least $514,512, owned 39.9 percent of the world’s household wealth, a total greater than the wealth of the world’s poorest 95 percent, those adults worth under $150,145.