Global economic inequality

post by Max Roser · 2022-02-23T00:00:00.000Z · EA · GW · 9 comments

This is a link post for


  Vast economic inequality means vast inequalities in living conditions
  Where a person finds themselves in the extremely unequal global income distribution is mostly determined by where they are
  The importance of redistribution and economic growth for reducing global inequality and better living conditions
  Economic growth
    How much economic growth is necessary to reduce global poverty substantially?

What is most important for how healthy, wealthy, and educated you are is not who you are, but where you are. Your knowledge and how hard you work matter too, but much less than the one factor that is entirely outside anyone’s control: whether you happen to be born into a productive, industrialized economy or not.

Global income inequality is vast. The chart shows this. As all data throughout this text it takes into account the differences in the cost of living.

The huge majority of the world is very poor. The poorer half of the world, almost 4 billion people, live on less than $6.70 a day.

If you live on $30 a day you are part of the richest 15% of the world ($30 a day roughly corresponds to the poverty lines set in high-income countries).

Linear axis global distribution

Inequality can be very high within countries, the US – a high-income country with extraordinary large inequality – is a prime example of this. But much of global inequality is inequality between countries. The small chart shows this by comparing the income distribution of the US with the distribution in Burundi.

Incomes poor and rich country us vs burundi 2018

Vast economic inequality means vast inequalities in living conditions

The large economic inequality is only one dimension of global inequality. There are many other aspects that people care about. 

But because a high income is so important for good living conditions these other inequalities map onto the economic inequality. Those who live on higher incomes have advantages in many ways.

The chart shows what life is like on different income levels in 12 different dimensions.

On the horizontal axis in each panel you see GDP per capita, measuring the average income in a country. Starting from the top left these panels show that where incomes are higher people live longer, children die less often, mothers die less often, doctors can focus on fewer patients, people have better access to clean drinking water and electricity, they can travel more, have more free time, have better access to education and better learning outcomes, and people are more satisfied with their lives.

The inequality of people’s living conditions mirrors the world’s economic inequality. 

It is hard to overstate how very large these differences are. Life expectancy in the poorest countries is 30 years shorter than in the richest countries. I have also just written about the very large global inequalities in learning outcomes along the economic dimension.

Correlates of gdp – how is life at different levels of income

Where a person finds themselves in the extremely unequal global income distribution is mostly determined by where they are

Seeing how much our living conditions depend on the productivity of the economy we live in should matter hugely for our own self-understanding and our view of others. In a world of such vast inequalities between countries it is not who a person is that determines whether they are well-off or poor, but where a person is.

To see this, consider a world without any inequality between countries. If all countries were equally rich, where someone would live would not matter at all for where someone ends up in the global income distribution.

In contrast, consider a situation of extreme inequality between countries, such as today’s inequality between a poor and rich country.1 In this case the home country of a person determines everything. The shown data for Ethiopia and Denmark makes this clear: the two distributions basically don’t overlap at all, a person born in Denmark has almost certainly an income above the global average, someone born in Ethiopia has almost certainly an income lower than that.

Simple incomes poor and rich country ethiopia vs denmark 2018

Beyond just two countries, how much does a person’s home country matter for where they are in today’s global income distribution?

Inequality researcher Branko Milanovic studied this question and found that the country where a person lives explains two-thirds of the variation of income differences between all people in the world.2 Where a person lives is the most important factor of their income.

For a variety of reasons – from family ties to the political restrictions that impede migration – very few people move between countries. The vast majority of the world population [97%] live in the country they were born in. And so for most people in the world, it is not only the country they live in that determines their income, but it is the country they were born in.

All of this is not to say that a person’s work ethic, talent, and skills do not matter for their income. They do. But it is to say that all these personal factors together matter much less than the factor that is entirely outside of a person’s control: whether they are born into a large, productive economy or not.

Where you live isn’t just more important than all your personal characteristics, it’s more important than everything else put together.

The importance of redistribution and economic growth for reducing global inequality and better living conditions

The data I discussed highlights three important facts about our world: 

What can we take away from these three insights?


Redistribution through the state plays a large role in reducing inequality within countries and could also reduce global inequality. However, the reality is that, no matter in which rich country you pay your taxes, almost none of that goes to the world’s poor people.3 The redistribution that governments do is not reaching the poorest people: it is domestic not international redistribution.

If you want to reduce global inequality and support poorer people, you do however have this opportunity. You can donate some of your money.

You might be able to live on a little less and this money could make a big difference to a poorer person. 

The most direct way is to send some of your money directly to very poor people, the non-profit organization GiveDirectly makes this possible. Or you can donate to an effective charity that supports the world’s poorest. At the footnote you find out how to find such a charity and how I donate.4

Economic growth

Some suggest we can end poverty without additional growth by simply reducing global inequality. This is not the case. Reducing global inequality can achieve a lot, but it is important to be clear that redistribution alone would still mean that billions of people would live in very poor material conditions. The world is far too poor to end poverty without large growth.

To achieve a more equal world without poverty the world needs very large economic growth.5 

We can see this when we look at our global history. Two centuries ago the world was much more equal: Average income, measured with GDP per capita in the chart, was low everywhere and the huge majority of people was extremely poor

Since then some countries have achieved very large growth – Swedes are for example about 30-times richer than two centuries ago – while other economies hardly grew at all. This unequal development resulted in the extremely large global inequality of today.

The reality of today’s global inequality is cruel. Those who are born into an economy that achieved large growth in the last two centuries grow up in much better living conditions than those who happen to be born into a poor economy. Economic growth for billions of people in poverty is what we need to end this injustice.

Those places that have achieved large growth show how much better the living conditions can be for all.

To take one concrete example, let’s consider maternal mortality. In high-income countries, where mothers can rely on well-equipped hospitals and support from doctors and midwives when complications occur, maternal deaths have become rare (the risk of death has declined 300-fold in the last generations). But in the rest of the world it is still very common: every year 295,000 mothers die just in that moment when they give life to their child.

What would the world look like if the risk of death for mothers was globally as low as in the world’s richest countries? The huge majority of mothers who die this year would survive.6

Rich country living conditions globally maternal mortality

We know that this is possible. This is what the historical perspective makes clear; all places that have good living conditions today were extremely poor until just a few generations ago. 


What we have seen in the data here is one of the most important insights of development economics: people live in poverty not because of who they are, but because of where they are. A person’s knowledge, their skills, and how hard they work all matter for whether they are poor or not – but all these personal factors together matter less than the one factor that is entirely outside of a person’s control: whether they happen to be born into a large, productive economy or not.

What gives people the chance for a good life is when the entire society and economy around them changes for the better. This is what development and economic growth are about: transforming a place so that what was previously only attainable for a few comes into reach for all.

Continue reading on Our World in Data:

How much economic growth is necessary to reduce global poverty substantially?


Acknowledgements: I want to thank Joe Hasell and Toby Ord for their feedback on this article and visualizations.



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Ted Shields · 2022-11-20T20:08:55.139Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it is important to make a distinction when it comes to economic growth; in this article the author states, "To achieve a more equal world without poverty the world needs very large economic growth."  In the reference material the blog referenced states, "if we want global poverty to decline substantially then the economies that are home to the poorest billions of people need to grow." The latter statement seems indisputable, whereas the former results in an existential risk.

Continued exponential economic growth from the global north is unsustainable and will not allow us to resolve our current ecological crisis. The math simply does not work when we consider the exponential growth curve against a finite resource base.  

This requires redefining what it means to" live well" in the developed world (i.e., moving beyond a pure GDP based evaluation to include more qualitative measures).  This is why using Denmark as the global benchmark for the income equity analysis (in the reference article), leads to an exaggerated growth requirement.  

And I wonder what the chart for the highlighted European countries which shows the reduction in emissions, and growth in income,  would look like if we did not adjust for trade and also included total biodiversity impact?  

comment by Ivan Madan · 2022-10-21T08:33:49.383Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great article.
I would suggest correcting the sentence "On the horizontal axis in each panel you see GDP per capita..." as what we see is a logarithm of the GDP per capita.
While this doesn't challenge any of the messages  Max is making, one will get a very distorted perception if one assumes that all those metrics are linearly correlated with the GDPpc instead of the logarithm of the GDPpc. In practice, if we consider increasing GDPpc by 1000USD on the left side of the graphs it will shift the point by 30% of the whole range, while if we consider the reduction of the rightmost points by 1000 USD the shift will be ~1%.

This misreading happened to me on the first read and I have also heard other people saying that various metrics are correlated with the GDP, referring to this article.

Another even more nitpicky comment:
Although I understand that Max is simply reusing graphics from an external source, I should note that one might be deceived by the presentation in two other cases:
- in graphs 2 and 3 as the vertical axis is also logarithmic  (implying power dependence on GDP). 
- in the first and the last two graphs' Y-axis doesn't start from zero

Replies from: Diego Oliveira
comment by Diego Oliveira · 2023-03-18T19:41:23.312Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this important comment! I also agree that it would make the text clearer if we added the fact that we're dealing with the logarithm of the GDP.

Your observations seem very to the point. Could you elaborate a little bit on what you mean by "implying power dependence on GDP"?

comment by gajosfajos · 2022-11-17T14:59:00.139Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I would disagree with one point:
"The world is far too poor to end poverty without large growth." - the article linked does not even consider the global redistribution (non-domestic) possibility, therefore I would argue that this claim does not have enough stand to be made. The only form of the redistribution considered in the linked article is the domestic one.

Replies from: Ian Turner, Diego Oliveira
comment by Ian Turner · 2023-03-19T17:07:38.389Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think the linked article does consider it but rejects it as unrealistic. See the section, "In this scenario every country that is richer than Denmark reduces average incomes". A footnote explicitly describes this scenario as "a redistribution of incomes from richer countries to poorer countries."

comment by Diego Oliveira · 2023-03-18T19:46:10.079Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Wow! Really? I haven't read that referred article, and my knowledge of Economics is almost zero. Since Max's claim here as I understand it (that in order to end poverty, a global redistribution of wealth is not sufficient) is very bold and has practical consequences, I'd like to ask if someone could evaluate gajosfajos' argument. Is Max Roser really making that unwarranted conclusion?

Replies from: Ian Turner
comment by Ian Turner · 2023-03-19T17:14:12.224Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I suppose it depends on the definition of poverty that you want to use, but if we are talking about the global poverty line, redistribution would easily be adequate. There are individual people alive today with adequate assets.

Replies from: Lizka
comment by Lizka · 2023-03-19T22:02:09.662Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's not the definition used in the linked article (I agree that this is confusing, and I wish it were flagged a bit beter, although I don't think the choice of definitions itself is unreasonable) — see here

... I will use Denmark as a benchmark of what it means for poverty to fall ‘substantially’. Using Denmark as a benchmark, we can ask: how equal and rich would countries around the world need to become for global poverty to be similarly low as in Denmark?

Denmark is not the only country with a small share living on less than $30, as the visualization above showed. In Norway and Switzerland an even smaller share of the population (7% and 11%) is living in such poverty. I chose Denmark, where 14% live in poverty, as a benchmark because the country is achieving this low poverty rate despite having a substantially lower average income than Switzerland or Norway.

Considering a scenario in which global poverty declines to the level of poverty in Denmark is a more modest scenario than one that considers an end of global poverty altogether. It is a scenario in which global poverty would fall from 85% to 14% and so it would certainly mean a substantial reduction of poverty. 

If you think that my poverty line of $30 per day is too low or too high, or if you want to rely on a different country than Denmark as a benchmark, or if you would prefer a scenario in which no one in the world would remain in poverty, you can follow my methodology and replace my numbers with yours.5 What I want to do in this text is to give an idea of the magnitude of the changes that are necessary to substantially reduce global poverty.

And see here for why (I think) this is what Max has gone for:

Abstract: The extremely low poverty line that the UN relies on has the advantage that it draws the attention to the very poorest people in the world. It has the disadvantage that it ignores what is happening to the incomes of the 90% of the world population who live above the extreme poverty threshold.
The global poverty line that the UN relies on is based on the national poverty lines in the world’s poorest countries. In this article I ask what global poverty looks like if we rely on the notions of poverty that are common in the world’s rich countries – like Denmark, the US, or Germany. Based on the evidence I ask what our aspirations for the future of global poverty reduction might be.

Mean income by country
comment by Zumji · 2023-01-17T22:49:55.529Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Inequality is really a global and major issue,which economically spans across stratification and country based structures, depending on how it's been handled.As the issues regarding growth and development are very keen and cannot be overemphasized, my suggestion posits, reducing this inequality requires engaging local approaches,which are on developmental path ways,in relations to international measures, geared towards aligning and aiding improvement,for the lots of the populace,as I concur with the article,which stress a major issue regarding where a person is been born tends to matters,as against other personal variables,which might emanate,with respect to his or her subsequent life growth and development.