The difference between rich and poor is becoming more extreme, and as income inequality widens the wealth gap in major nations, education, health and social mobility are all threatened.
Widening wealth disparity affects every part of our lives. It's impacting social stability within countries and threatening security on a global scale, and looking ahead to 2014, it's essential that we devise innovative solutions to the causes and consequences of a world becoming ever more unequal.
My organization once focused primarily on the countries at the very bottom of the economic ladder -- nations where most of the population were living in extreme poverty. But now we see more and more poor people in middle-income countries. Despite robust macroeconomic growth, large segments of these countries' citizenry are being left behind. Income inequality is shifting the nature of our work as we now seek to also address poverty in countries on the rise, where a small percentage of the people enjoy unprecedented economic rewards, while many are squeezed out of the middle classes into the clutches of poverty.
The effects of growing income inequality are also being seen within major nations on the global stage, from large emerging markets like China and India to the developed nations of the West -- according to the Survey, increasing inequality is the number one challenge facing North America. The incredible wealth created over the last decade in the United States has gone to a smaller and smaller portion of the population, and this disparity stems from many of the same roots as in developing nations.
First among them is a lack of access to high quality basic primary and secondary education for all segments of our society. Additionally, it has become prohibitively expensive for the average middle-income family to send their child to college in the United States; higher education, once seen as the great equalizer and engine for economic mobility, is becoming unaffordable for far too many.
Chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, which are linked to poor diet and lack of exercise, are major causes of death and disease in the United States. Yet there are "food deserts," areas where it's almost impossible to buy reasonably priced fresh fruit and vegetables, so people have little choice but to eat high-calorie, low-nutritional food. Many of the same communities have streets that aren't lit, where it's not safe to go out alone to exercise, and we find that solving neighborhood inequality can be just as important to creating positive health outcomes as providing medical access.
As people around the world see growing threats to their education, incomes and health, a movement is coalescing around the issue of widening income disparity. Unrest cloaked in a desire to change from one political leader to another is a manifestation of people's concerns about their basic needs. And it's the young who are most willing to take to the streets because they feel like they have nothing to lose. Many young adults with college degrees are unable to find jobs and some countries have more than 50 percent youth unemployment. Over the next decade, particularly in developing countries where much of the population is under 30, the lack of access to jobs will increase the risks of political and social strife.
In order to counteract income inequality, it's essential to tackle poverty in an integrated way that has long-term impact. We need to give people the capacity to be resilient, to take on challenges and to learn the skills they need to work toward more prosperous futures. We should also look broadly at social inequalities like gender discrimination, as girls and women are disproportionately impacted by poverty; they are also the ones who bring greatest change to societies.
With political will and strategic initiatives, we can prevent more and more of our global neighbors from falling into the abyss of poverty and instead give future generations the opportunities they need to rise to their fullest potential.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum's Annual Meeting 2014 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 22-25). The Forum's Network of Global Agenda Councils consists of more than 80 select groups of experts, each focused on key topics in the global arena, that collectively serve as an advisory board to the Forum and other interested parties, such as governments and international organizations. Read all posts in this series forecasting global trends for 2014 here.