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Who’s the one percent? Look in the mirror

A couple weeks ago, Oxfam released a report that dropped a few sledgehammers about vast wealth inequality among the world's population. Among them, the 80 richest people now have about as much money as the bottom 3.5 billion people combined. By 2016, the richest one percent are on track to have more wealth than the bottom 99 percent. 

The report got people talking, understandably. The New York Times and the Guardian put it in their news sections. Hillary Clinton cited it in a speech in Winnipeg. Policy wonks and financial experts debated the report’s accuracy, questioning Oxfam’s use of net wealth (a person’s assets minus their debt), instead of overall assets, income or other measures. The New Yorker shot back, essentially explaining that there’s no perfect way to give a snapshot of wealth around the world and the report still points to a rather alarming trend no matter the squabbles over calculations. 

I’m not here to debate the statistics – happy to leave that to Ezra Klein and his friends. “Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” as far as I’m concerned. I will go on the record to say that regardless of the challenges of calculating an accurate picture of world wealth, it’s worth taking note of Oxfam’s report. It’s another indicator of the inequality that has been raising ire and voices around the world for more than a decade. Even the report’s critics concede that despite the shortcomings, its overall assessment of great inequality is dead on.

What interests me though is: who, exactly, are these richest one percent?

Flickr via Thomas Hawk

For starters, it includes the usual suspects who appear on Forbes' annual list of the world's richest people. I’m looking at you, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. But the BBC explains that the richest 1 percent includes 47 million people. The Forbes list only gets us through the 1,645 billionaires.

Each of our one percenters has amassed a net worth of at least USD$798,000, according to Credit Suisse, the company that compiled the data. All right, so it’s not me (thank you, student loans). 

But the top one percent does include a lot of Americans, despite our debt-loving ways. A BBC map shows us that 18 million of the top 1 percenters are in the U.S., a full 38 percent of world’s richest. The rest are spread around, most in places you’d expect: Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan. Another 1.6 million of the top one percent are in China, which overtook the U.S. as the world’s largest economy last year. 

So what’s that mean, to have a net wealth of USD$798,000? In New York, it’s roughly like owning this Upper West Side one-bedroom co-op free and clear (exposed brick and outdoor space?!). Or in St. Louis, this stately 6-bedroom home.

But a one-bedroom apartment does not make you a Kardashian, even in Manhattan. Having net wealth in this neighborhood could also mean you’re approaching retirement. In fact, it’s the sweet spot for readers of Where to Retire, a magazine that helps the 55 and over crowd figure out where to relocate when they give up the 9-to-5 hussle. 

So while the one percent wealthiest people in world are certainly doing well, they’re not all insanely rich. In fact, if you live in Australia, Canada, the U.S., or U.K., you very likely know one of them – if you aren’t one yourself.

Want to see where you rank? Check out CARE’s Global Rich List to see. It’s pretty surprising. 

The Oxfam report presents a great chance for global citizens to examine how we talk about wealth and inequality. The conversation around the report is as eye opening as the report itself. Showing people a poverty through the lens of “the top one percent” can paint what appears to be a crystal clear picture of inequality, but the picture’s might look a little different when you get up close.


Amy Freeland