A luxury car is parked outside the Monaco casino in Monte
Carlo, a playground for the world's wealthy. Photo Getty
As business and political leaders gather in Davos,
Switzerland, to discuss the improving world economy, new
evidence emerged about how much the rich have become richer -
and how much further the poor are falling behind.
The 85 richest people on Earth now have the same amount of
wealth as the bottom half of the global population, according
to a report this week by the British humanitarian group Oxfam
The findings highlight the widening gap between rich and poor
ahead of the annual World Economic Forum this week. The
report, and others recently on the issue, could boost efforts
in Washington to increase the federal minimum wage, which
President Barack Obama has made a priority.
"It is staggering that in the 21st century, half of the
world's population own no more than a tiny elite whose
numbers could all sit comfortably in a single train
carriage," said Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam's executive director.
"Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where
wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands
of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from
the top table," Byanyima said.
The bottom half of the population - about 3.5 billion people
- account for about $1.7 trillion, or about 0.7 percent of
the world's wealth, according to the Oxfam report, titled
"Working for the Few."
That's the same amount of wealth attributed to the world's 85
Those wealthy elite are a small part of the richest 1 percent
of the world's population, which combined has amassed about
46 percent of the world's wealth, or $110 trillion, according
to the report. The top 1 percent had 65 times the total
wealth of the bottom half of the population.
Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy
Research in Washington, said he's not surprised by the Oxfam
report and others showing increased inequality between rich
"As long as we maintain high rates of unemployment, I don't
see any prospect of reversing this situation," Baker said.
"The only time where workers in the middle and bottom of the
wage distribution were able to achieve sustained gains was in
the late '90s when we had low unemployment."
He's less concerned with measures of wealth, which have been
inflated by stock market gains and could reverse with a
market downturn. But he noted that income growth for poor and
middle-class Americans has lagged behind that of the rich in
the last three decades.
The Oxfam findings and others should help build support for
an increase in the federal minimum wage, Baker said.
In a report last week, the World Economic Forum said widening
income inequality was the risk most likely to cause serious
damage in the next decade. Obama recently called the
expanding gap between rich and poor a bigger threat to the
U.S. economy than the budget deficit.
A Gallup poll released Monday found two-thirds of Americans
were dissatisfied with the way income and wealth are
distributed in the nation. The wealth gap was a factor in
nationwide rallies last month by fast-food workers seeking
Oxfam said the United States has led a worldwide growth in
The percentage of income held by the richest 1 percent in the
U.S. has grown nearly 150 percent from 1980 through 2012.
That small elite has received 95 percent of wealth created
since 2009, after the financial crisis, while the bottom 90
percent of Americans have become poorer, Oxfam said.
The uneven gains of the economic recovery, in which many
people have had to take lower-paying jobs, have exacerbated
income inequality, said Christine Owens, executive director
of the National Employment Law Project.
"The people who are losing ground are the people in the
middle and the bottom" of the economic spectrum, Owens said.
There also are concerns about the broader effect of the
"Income inequality is also socially destabilizing," Owens
said. "So it's not just a question of fairness; it's a
question of how do we preserve a functioning democracy, and
it's difficult to do that if we don't have broadly shared
The problem exists worldwide, Oxfam said.
The share of wealth owned by the richest 1 percent since 1980
expanded in all but two of the 26 nations tracked by
researchers in the World Top Incomes Database. That has put a
"massive concentration of economic resources in the hands of
fewer people," the report said.
Falling taxes for the rich and an increased use of tax havens
have helped widen income inequality, Oxfam said.
The group called on World Economic Forum participants, which
include some of the wealthiest and most influential corporate
executives, to take steps to reverse the trend.
Among other things, Oxfam wants them to support progressive
taxation, pledge not to dodge taxes, pay a living wage to
workers at their companies and push governments "to provide
universal health care, education and social protection" for