More wealth than ever, but billions still starve

rich and poor

Despite our global economic hard times, the world has more than enough wealth to ensure every adult on the planet a significant nest egg.

This heartening news comes from the Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse. Its first-ever Global Wealth Report crunches data for over 200 countries and maps the wealth belonging to the world's richest people - and everybody else.

Those inclined to see the sunny side will certainly find it in these numbers. They indicate that total global net worth, despite the 2008 global economic meltdown, has rocketed up 72 percent since 2000.

The world's 4.4 billion adults, note the bank's researchers, now hold $194.5 trillion in wealth. That's enough, if this asset stash were shared evenly across the globe, to guarantee every adult in the world a $43,800 net worth.

But the world's wealth, of course, isn't evenly divided. And this study helpfully breaks down the arithmetic of our staggering global unevenness.

We've got, at the wealth spectrum's uppermost reaches, just over 1,000 billionaires and another 80,000 "ultra high net worth individuals" worth over $50 million each. We can add into this wealthy summit another 24 million adults worth between $1 million and $50 million.

At other end of the global spectrum sit three billion people - more than two thirds of the world's adults - whose wealth averages less than $10,000. About 1.1 billion of them have a net worth of less than $1,000.

"Our analysis," the Credit Suisse study says in a whopping understatement, "finds some stark differences in the distribution of wealth."

Here's perhaps the study's starkest data snapshot: Half the people on earth who are 20 and older hold under $4,000 in net worth, after subtracting debts from assets. They wield less than two percent of global wealth.

Meanwhile, the world's richest 1 percent - adults who have at least $588,000 to call their own - hold 43 percent of the world's wealth.

As the new report underscores, personal wealth actually means much more in some places than others. If you live in a society with a frayed social safety net, your personal wealth is crucial. Without substantial net worth, you're going to be vulnerable "to shocks like unemployment, ill health, or natural disasters."

By contrast, if you live in a society with a robust safety net - a nation that boasts "good public health care, high quality public education, generous state pensions," and the like - the size of your personal fortune matters considerably less.

People in the United States - a society with an inadequate social safety net - need more personal net worth than folks who live in nations with healthier social service networks. But average Joes and Janes in many nations with stronger social safety nets than the United States actually have more net worth than their American counterparts.

Consider Canada, a nation with national public health insurance. Credit Suisse calculates the 2010 median wealth in Canada - the wealth of the typical Canadian family - at $94,700. That's about double the $47,771 U.S. median net worth.

No other nation, to be sure, holds as much total wealth as the United States. With only 5.2 percent of the world's population, the United States boasts 23 percent of the world's adults worth at least $100,000 and an even greater proportion, 41 percent, of the world's millionaires.

"The past decade has been especially conducive to the establishment and preservation of large fortunes," Credit Suisse sums up. Banking giants may be able to live comfortably with that reality. The rest of us need to change it.

Sam Pizzigati is editor of Too Much, an online newsletter on excess and inequality. This article was distributed by Other Words, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Image: Wealth piles up, but it doesn't wind up in many people's hands.  Robert Huffstutter // CC BY-NC 2.0

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