November 15, 2013

The global consensus: Inequality is a major problem

People in wealthy, middle income, and developing nations have had very different economic experiences since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008. Many rich countries have faced their greatest economic challenge in decades, while some emerging and developing countries have enjoyed continued growth that has lifted millions out of poverty. However, across all of these income categories there is a growing consensus that inequality poses a major threat to the global economy.

FT_13.11.14_WorldInequality_310A new study released today by the World Economic Forum highlights the extent to which global elites see inequality as a major challenge in the year ahead. Based on a survey of 1,592 leaders from academia, business, government, and the non-profit world, Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 identifies the top ten trends facing the world in 2014. Number two on the list is widening income disparities (No. 1 is rising societal tensions in the Middle East and North Africa). Among respondents from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia, income disparity is the top issue. 

Moreover, global elites do not believe inequality is receiving the attention it deserves. When asked how satisfied they are with the attention media and business are giving the top 10 issues on the global agenda, respondents to the survey are least satisfied with the amount of attention to the subject of inequality.FTinequality11-14-2013 5-16-32 PM

Helene D. Gayle, President and CEO of CARE USA, an international humanitarian organization, spells out some of the key sources for growing inequality around the world: the lack of access to high quality primary and secondary education in many countries; public health problems, like chronic disease, that exacerbate income gaps; and social inequalities such as gender discrimination.

In developing countries where a large percentage of the population is under age 30, a dearth of jobs could create social and political instability in the coming decade. Overall, global elites rate persistent structural unemployment as the third most significant trend for 2014.

Elites and average citizens often disagree on economic issues, but on the topic of inequality there is broad agreement. One of the most striking findings from a recent Pew Research Center survey of general publics across the globe was the degree to which people see the gap between rich and poor as a major challenge. In 31 of 39 nations, half or more of those polled said inequality is a very big problem in their country.

It is an especially important challenge in Africa. In all six African nations surveyed, at least 70% consider it a very big problem. Across these six countries, a median of 76% hold this view, higher than any other region. However, the rich-poor gap is a major concern in other regions as well, including wealthy nations. In places hit hard by the euro crisis, such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, overwhelming majorities rate it a very big problem.

Publics around the world not only believe inequality is a serious problem – they are also convinced it is getting worse. In 35 of the 39 nations polled, at least half say the gap between rich and poor has increased in recent years. This view is especially common in Europe: 90% in Spain and 88% in both Italy and Greece say inequality is up. But even in Germany, which has weathered the financial storm far better than others in the region, 88% believe economic disparity has increased over the last five years.

In many countries, the economic disruptions and unease of the past few years may be driving concerns about inequality, but the survey findings make clear that people do not see this as a short-term problem. Instead, they believe it is a central feature of their economic systems. When asked whether their country’s economic system is generally fair to most people or favors the wealthy, respondents overwhelmingly believe the latter. The only four countries surveyed in which less than half say their system favors the wealthy are Australia, Bolivia, Malaysia, and Venezuela.

Whether it’s rich countries, poor countries, or the expanding global middle class, there is a widely shared view among both elites and ordinary citizens that inequality has gotten worse, and that it poses a major economic threat moving forward. Over time, our polling has found that people around the world generally support key features of economic globalization. Most believe trade is good for their country; and while support for the free market has declined in many nations, most still think people are better off in a capitalist system. However, it is increasingly clear that people around the globe believe those at the top of the economic ladder are enjoying a disproportionate share of the gains, while those below are being left behind.

Topics: Globalization and Trade, Income Inequality

  1. Photo of Richard Wike

    is director of global attitudes research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Elle Strauss4 years ago

    To Whom It May Concern,
    I would like to thank Pew Research Center for conducting the survey about inequality concerns in various countries. I would also like to thank Richard Wike for writing the article on global inequality. I am a graduate student at the University of Phoenix and I am working on a paper for my sociology class. The topic is about wage differences and inequality in the USA. One of the sub topics that needed to be covered was whether or not this was an issue in other countries and how differing groups were working to resolve the issue. Your article was a huge help. Thank you very much and have a wonderful holiday season.

    Elle Strauss

  2. RT Carpenter4 years ago

    Structural unemployment does seem like a probable cause of future unrest. The opinion research notwithstanding however, I would be curious to know how these concerns about the relative inequality of income distribution stack up against absolute measurements of the change in equivalent (purchasing power parity) income over time in each of hte domestic economies.

    If people are earning more, or able to purchase more with their earnings, than they were the year before, then they are better off. This would be a useful and instructive measure. I am not seeing that information in any of these income distribution studies.

    Without a more factual basis, this work amounts to nothing more than rabble-rousing.

  3. Will Crain Billings, MT4 years ago

    The problem is Capitalism pure and simple. The Rich get Richer and the poor get poorer especially in a country like the USA where our politians are Owned lock, stock an barrel by Wall St …with a genuflect by the SCOTUS and all Campaigns/Representatives geared to do the the Wall St. Capitalists/ Devils bidding!

    Selling Coal over seas from MT – WY wherever, does not go into the hands of the people who technically own the resources but into the hands of the filthy Capitalists. They Capitalize the Gains an Socialize the losses IE we eat the dirt, fumes, smoke, train wrecks, polluted seas, rivers, lakes, land, fires, radiation ~

    Our Reps make money by keeping unemployment up and forcing more into poverty if not further down. If it were otherwise they’d be working to enact guaranteed work for all with *(21 cent Full Employment Act) but noooooo unemployment, stagnet wages, benefits non existent, are all the Working Class gets in ‘merika. Rising health care costs, privatization of Education, inability of 3rd parties to get on the ballots of America are huge issues contributing to the Inequality in the US.

    The inequality gap is real and pure poison. The US cuts 5 billion dollars from Food Stamps and gives 488 million to Zionist Israel for Arms and emplements of suppression ??? Who’s Gap?

    The Inequality is full on in your face where ever you turn and it’s because Capitalists own our Government… and it’s not going to get better until folks like PEW stand up and make it change… because in the future your stats will be %99 washed out and %1 living the life of Reilly.

    i think your survey is embedded with Wall St well wishers. That is to say i don’t buy the over simplified

  4. John Stoesser4 years ago

    I’d be curious to know the sampling of the “average citizen” group, i.e. number polled and from what occupations.

    1. Andrea Caumont4 years ago

      Hi John, thanks for the question. You can see sample sizes by country on our methods page here:…