ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Economists traditionally measure global inequality by looking at the gap between the richest and poorest countries. A new report from the United Nations says that misses something significant - the growing frustration among people in the economic middle. The report argues economic inequality within countries is far more likely to cause conflict than the gaping divides between nations. NPR's Jason Beaubien explains.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Most of the world's population, 76%, live in middle-income countries. These are places where per capita income is between $1,000 and $12,000 a year. By comparison, per capita income in the United States is $63,000 a year. Achim Steiner, the administrator of the U.N. Development Programme, says inequality is now causing discord inside these middle-income countries.
ACHIM STEINER: We still have the challenge of the extremely poor. But on the back of, you know, many successful policies in reducing extreme poverty, what we are seeing is an opening up of a new generation of inequalities.
BEAUBIEN: And he says these inequalities are being felt most by people who view themselves as part of the expanding middle class. The latest edition of the Human Development Report from UNDP looks at the problem of the frustrated aspirations of people in the economic middle. The poor have long known that they have few opportunities to advance, but now members of the emerging global middle class are also starting to recognize that the system, at times, is stacked against them. Steiner says that spurs complaints like this.
STEINER: I know today that my child born into my family, into my neighborhood, already starts life at a significant disadvantage.
BEAUBIEN: Technological advances, with smartphones and the Internet, are making people more aware of the disparities around them. And this is happening, Steiner says, at a time when people are losing faith in social mobility.
STEINER: Because what people, perhaps 30, 40 years ago, were led to believe and often saw around them is that if you worked hard, you could escape poverty. You could graduate, so to speak. And yet, in many countries today, that story of development, that escape from poverty into a next-generation income bracket is simply not occurring like that anymore.
BEAUBIEN: Dana El Kurd, who teaches at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, says inequality in a decimated middle class were part of what spurred the Arab Spring uprisings. And she says these trends continue to fuel protest movements in the region. Via Skype from Qatar, El Kurd says domestic conflicts that, in the past, were viewed solely as sectarian problems, young people now are viewing as being more about the entrenched political elites rather than religion.
DANA EL KURD: Now what we're seeing in the protests that emerged in Iraq recently is, like, people recognizing and opposing this idea, that actually, these political elites don't represent anybody but themselves.
BEAUBIEN: The U.N. Human Development Report goes on to predict that climate change will exacerbate global inequities as people with fewer resources have a harder time adjusting to environmental disruptions.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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