Inequality is growing and destabilizing democracies worldwide, according to a report released by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
The World Social Report 2020 argues that inequality is primarily driven by dysfunctional political systems that rig economies to favor wealthy people. As a result, inequality becomes self-reinforcing and can grow to extremes that undermine societies by causing poverty to soar and basic rights like health care to become inaccessible to all but the most wealthy.
The signs of this breakdown are everywhere, according to the UN. Authoritarian leaders are coming to power, world hunger is rising for the first time in decades, and climate change could lead to an ecological apartheid.
“Highly unequal societies are less effective at reducing poverty than those with low levels of inequality,” the report states. “They also grow more slowly and are less successful at sustaining economic growth. Disparities in health and education make it challenging for people to break out of the cycle of poverty, leading to the transmission of disadvantage from one generation to the next.”
The report looks at four “megatrends” that could exacerbate inequality in the decades ahead: climate change, technological innovation, urbanization, and international migration.
As climate change intensifies, inequality between countries will grow. In fact, the countries least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions are expected to be the most disrupted by climate change.
The report calls on world leaders to collaborate to achieve the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement.
Technological innovation could create profound disparities between the haves and the have-nots. Automation, in particular, could displace millions of workers.
Countries can prepare for these disruptions by, among other things, investing in education, creating robust social safety nets, and collaborating with other countries to share technology gains.
Urbanization is an unstoppable force around the world. By 2050, 68% of the global population could live in cities. This large-scale migration could exacerbate inequality unless governments take steps to improve housing and land rights, invest in public transportation, enact safety and wage standards for employment, and empower local government bodies to proactively respond to communities, the report explains.
Finally, international migration could exacerbate inequality between countries and expand the ranks of undocumented immigrants, who are largely forced to live in the shadows of society. The report calls on countries to adopt the humane principles established in its migration pact.
Inequality is not inevitable. The UN argues that the tools for mitigating inequality and promoting broad prosperity have been known to policymakers for decades.
They include redistributive policies that tax wealthy citizens to pay for investments in social safety nets and the expansion of affordable housing, health care, and education. Protecting and advancing women’s rights, labor rights, and environmental integrity are all ways to reduce inequality.
“If the vision of a shared future was to be carried forward, world leaders had to seize every opportunity to take bold and decisive action to reduce inequality,” the report states.