Recently, there have been numerous reports highlighting the distribution of wealth and income inequality in both America and around the world. The news is far from healthy:
- It is currently estimated that by the year 2016, the richest 1 percent will control more than half of the world’s wealth.
- Even more shocking, the combined wealth of the 80 richest people in the world is the same as that of the bottom 50% of the Earth’s population—totaling 3.5 billion people.
- In America, the wealth inequality gap continues to grow as America’s middle class shrinks. The share of American households in the middle class fell from 56.5 percent in 1979 to only 45.1 percent in 2012. And there is no indication this trend will reverse itself.
Regardless of how you think the problem should be resolved, this is not good news.
Numerous economic studies indicate the significant dangers to society when the wealth gap widens—both economically and for personal well-being. One of the most important factors designating first-world countries from third-world countries is the size of the middle class and opportunity for social mobility. I have seen firsthand the damaging effect of income inequality.
There are solutions to this problem and we need to find them.
But recently, I have begun noticing another unhealthy trend. One that may be related to the widening gap, but more likely, finds its root in the human spirit. It too requires a solution, albeit a much easier one to define.
This equally negative trend is the wealth gap we focus on in our mind and the resulting division we artificially create because of it.
Let me explain what I mean with a short story from this past weekend:
On Sunday, I was spending some time with neighbors. Economically speaking, we live very similar lives in our suburban neighborhood outside Phoenix. At one point, one of the guys struck up a conversation with one of the teenage boys in attendance—the son of another friend. In response to a question, the teenager mentioned the Soccer Club he had begun playing for. This Soccer Club, not too far down the road from us, just happens to be located in one of the wealthiest counties in the country.
My friend’s immediate response to this information was telling, “Oh, so you’re on a team with a bunch of rich kids?” The jealousy contained in his voice was difficult to mask.
His statement, I believe, is indicative of how most of us view wealth: “Those with more are the rich ones, not me.”
I mean, never mind the fact that earlier in the day my friend had to decide which of their two vehicles he would drive to the party. Forget the part that we were enjoying fine food and drink in a comfortable, well-decorated home. Disregard that he had enough money to care for his health needs, was making plans to retire in the near future, and had even saved a bit of money for his child’s college education… in his mind, he was not rich. The “other guys” down the street were the rich ones.
We experience this often in our thinking. We usually compare our financial circumstance to those who have more. And as a result, we rarely consider ourselves wealthy. The world is big and there is always somebody with more. No wonder 55% of millionaires do not consider themselves rich.
We see this also on a macro-level in our society. In our country and around the world, “The 1%” has become a derogatory term describing the wealthiest among us. Subtly, it is used to designate the apparent, insatiable greed of those who already own enough. We use it in conversation to draw a sharp contrast between those who are “rich,” and those of us who most assuredly, are not.
Again, because we compare our financial circumstance to those who have more, we refuse to consider ourselves among the rich. But something interesting happens when we begin to expand our comparisons.
Globally, an estimated 6 billion people live on less than $13,000/year. And nearly half the world’s population, 2.8 billion people, survive on less than $2 a day.
Even a minimum wage job ($7.25 an hour, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year) puts you in the top 8% of all people on the planet in terms of income. Adjusting for actual purchasing power makes little difference in the percentages.
In other words, we are the rich ones. When we begin to expand our worldview beyond those who only have more than us, we quickly discover we are already among the wealthiest in the world today. And in most cases, we are the 1%, globally speaking.
We are already wealthy. And this should change entirely the way we live our lives. (tweet that)
This realization invites us to pursue happiness elsewhere. If I already exist in the top 2% of wage-earners in the world, is reaching the top 1.8% really going to increase my happiness index significantly? Maybe having more money is not the answer, maybe I will need to look elsewhere.
It requires us to rethink contentment. The level of income in our countries is just one economic measurement. In addition to income, average home sizes have nearly tripled in the past 50 years, televisions outnumber people in the average American home, and the average British 10-year-old owns 238 toys but plays with just 12 daily. Despite our material accumulation, discontent fuels more desire, more shopping, and more debt. If all that we already own has not satisfied the deepest longings of our heart by now, they probably never will.
Our wealth calls us to embrace a higher standard. Most of the “us vs. them” conversations concerning wealth focus on how those with more should spend their money differently—whether by governmental authority or by personal initiative. But, if “we” became “they,” shouldn’t we try to live by the same standard we called them to uphold?
It opens the opportunity for greater generosity in our lives today. The thinking runs deep in many of our hearts: Once I make more money, I will become more generous. But the research indicates otherwise. We are already wealthy—most of us ranking in the top 2% globally. The time for generosity is now. And maybe the greatest benefit of generosity is the realization that we already have enough.
Are you the wealthiest human being in the world? Absolutely not (I mean, unless you are reading Bill). But that doesn’t mean “rich” is some far off concept you will never attain. In reality, most of us have already achieved it. And this ought to change both how we live and define wealth.