The New York Times
UNITED NATIONS -- In the wake of reports that gaps between rich and poor in the United States are wider than they have been in half a century, a U.N. survey to be published on Wednesday finds that the phenomenon is worldwide, and that the wealthiest and poorest people -- both within and among countries -- are living in increasingly separate worlds.
Moreover, the United States is slipping into a category of countries -- among them Brazil, Britain and Guatemala -- where economic stratification is most pronounced, with the national per capita income four times or more higher than the average income of the poor, according to the survey, the Human Development Report 1996, compiled by the U.N. Development Program.
The ratio of the top 20 percent of American incomes to the poorest 20 percent is now 9 to 1, the study shows.
"An emerging global elite, mostly urban-based and interconnected in a variety of ways, is amassing great wealth and power, while more than half of humanity is left out," said James Gustave Speth, an American who is administrator of the Development Program.
"We still have more than half the people on the planet with incomes of less than $2 a day -- more than 3 billion people," Speth said in an interview last week. "For poor people in this two-class world, it is a breeding ground for hopelessness, for anger, for frustration."
The Human Development report will be released officially in Tokyo on Wednesday by Richard Jolly, its principal author.
A nation's total wealth is not an adequate guide to how its people live, the survey says. In nations as diverse as the Netherlands, Japan, Bangladesh and Nepal, the gap between average incomes and those of the poorest 20 percent of the population is half that of the United States.
The distribution of private economic assets, in property and investments, widen American differences even more.
Many of the most equitable societies are now in East and Southeast Asia, where economic growth has been fastest but where at the same time the division of national wealth has been the fairest, the report says.
The annual Human Development Report was first published in 1990 as a new way to measure countries' progress by going beyond gross national product to factor in life expectancy, education and adjusted real incomes. The report's Human Development Index ranks countries by health, sanitation, the treatment of women and other aspects of life that give what the authors believe is a truer picture of day-to-day existence.
This year, Canada leads the index with the most advanced overall human development, followed by the United States, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway. On a list of 174 countries, Russia ranks 57th, China 108th and India 135th. Africa south of the Sahara dominates the bottom.
When the list is adjusted to reflect the status of women, the United States drops to fourth place among 137 countries, behind Sweden, Canada and Norway. Japan drops to 12th place, while China rises to 79th.
The 1996 report introduces another new measure of national growth -- or lack of it. Called a "capability poverty measure," this index tries to find hidden or potential poverty by looking at factors like the percentage of children under 5 who are underweight, the proportion of unattended births, the number of children in school and rate of female illiteracy. In other words, is a nation programming poverty and disadvantage into coming generations?
For example, in South Asia -- India and its neighbors, except Sri Lanka -- 29 percent of the people are living in severe poverty when income alone is measured, but more than 62 percent are living in conditions that can negatively affect their futures.
John Sewell, president of the Overseas Development Council, a private policy research organization in Washington, said in an interview that social indicators can no longer be overlooked by any country focused on national economic growth. The era of choosing between a welfare state or a bigger GNP is over; social and economic factors work together, he said.
"It is clear by now in the developing world that the prime responsibility for progress has to fall to those governments and societies themselves," he said. "Nothing much is going to change until countries take the steps to invest in people, educate women and create a health care system that works while also adopting policies that are going to lead to economic growth."
In Asia, as in the Scandinavian countries a generation or more ago, a number of countries -- among them Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore -- have spent significant sums on health, education, the advancement of women and the provision of credit to low-income families and small-scale entrepreneurs.
But they also focused simultaneously on national economic growth, and this two-track policy led to "the most sustained and widespread development miracle of the 20th century, perhaps all history," the report says.
At the independent Cato Institute in Washington, Ian Vasquez, director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty, is skeptical about more foreign aid and about reports by agencies with an interest in continuing or expanding assistance programs.
"The evidence over the past 30 to 40 years shows quite clearly that economic reforms, especially of the market-oriented type, help raise the standards of living dramatically more than traditional programs supported by foreign aid agencies like the UNDP," Vasquez said in an interview.
"The real story is that the conditions of people around the world have vastly improved over the last 50 or so years," he said. Progress rests with liberalizing economic policies, not outside support, he added.
Among the 1996 Human Development report's other findings are these:
-- Worldwide, 358 billionaires control assets greater than the combined annual incomes of countries with 45 percent of the world's people.
-- Eighty-nine countries are worse off economically than they were a decade or more ago. In 70 developing countries, incomes are lower than they were in the 1960s or 1970s. In 19 countries, including Ghana, Haiti, Liberia, Nicaragua, Rwanda and Venezuela, per capita income is below the 1960 level.
The Human Development Report 1996 is published by Oxford University Press at $18.95 in
paperback and $29.95 in hard cover.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company
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