Oxfam highlights widening gap in wealth between rich and poor

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WASHINGTON -- As business and political leaders gather Wednesday 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, says a report released Monday by the British humanitarian group Oxfam International.

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," Ms. 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, "Working for the Few." That's the same amount of wealth attributed to the world's 85 richest people.

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 was not surprised by the Oxfam report and others showing increased inequality between rich and poor. "As long as we maintain high rates of unemployment, I don't see any prospect of reversing this situation," he 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, Mr. 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. Mr. 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 higher wages.

Oxfam said the U.S. has led a worldwide growth in wealth concentration. 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 National Employment Law Project executive director Christine Owens. "The people who are losing ground are the people in the middle and the bottom" of the economic spectrum, she said.


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