Global Inequality and the Challenges of Reducing Extreme Poverty

By Ferrante, Joan | Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Global Inequality and the Challenges of Reducing Extreme Poverty


Ferrante, Joan, Sociological Viewpoints


Editor's Note: Joan Ferrante is a professor at Northern Kentucky University. She holds a Ph. D. from the University of Cincinnati and is best known as the author of several popular sociology textbook, among them Sociology: A Global Perspective. Among her many research interests is global sociology. In her textbooks she concentrates on undergraduate students, and her goal is to convey an understanding of concepts and methods in the field of sociology. Dr. Ferrante made this presentation at the 55th annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Sociological Society held at the Pennsylvania State University in 2005.

In May 1988, I signed a contract with Wadsworth Publishing Company to write Sociology: A Global Perspective. On that day I made a commitment to contribute to the discipline of sociology by writing an introduction to sociology textbook. That decision has set my research agenda for the past 17 years, and perhaps (with some luck), will set that agenda for the rest of my professional life. All my reading and research connects with the goal of updating/revising this textbook. In fact, I guess you could say that my "area of specialization" is introduction to sociology. So when I was asked to speak at this conference which has as its organizing theme: Reducing Global Inequality: Our Challenge for the 21st Century, I could not help but think how I might present the concept of global inequality and the challenge of reducing extreme poverty to those who are new to the discipline.

Global Inequality, Extreme Poverty, and Extreme Wealth

Global inequality refers to a situation in which income, wealth, and other valued resources are distributed unequally across countries and among the people living within each country on the planet. At one of end of the spectrum are those living in a state of extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is the most severe form of poverty such that the affected people cannot afford the basic human necessities (food, clothes, water, and shelter). Extreme poverty is characterized by malnutrition, chronic hunger, and disease. According to the United Nations the 1.2 billion people in the world who live on less than $1 per day live in extreme poverty. There are another 1.8 billion people who live on between $1 and $2 per day.

At the other end of the continuuum are those who live in a state of extreme wealth, the most excessive form of wealth in which a very small minority of people (perhaps as few as the richest 400) possess enough money, material possessions, and resources such that a 4 percent levy on that wealth could provide adequate food, safe water, sanitation, and basic health care for the 1.2 billion poorest people on the planet. It would also include the richest 7.7 million people in the world (one-tenth of one percent of the world's population) whose average wealth is one million dollars (excluding the value of and whose combined wealth is estimated to be $28 trillion, a staggering amount when you consider that it represents 54 percent of gross world product (GWP) which is $51.4 trillion (Associated Press 2001; INQ7money.net 2004; U.S. Central Intelligence Agency 2005).

The places in which people are born have an important effect on people's life chances. Obviously the chances a baby will survive the first year of life depend, in large part, on the county into which it is born. A baby born in Sweden has the best chance of surviving its first year of life as 3.44 of every 1000 babies born die before reaching the age of one; a baby born in Angola has the worst chance of surviving that first year as almost 200 of every 1000 babies born die within the first year.

One of the most startling examples of inequality across countries can be found when we compare the consumption patterns of the highest income countries (which contain 20 percent of the world's people) against the rest of the world, and especially the countries containing the poorest 20 percent. Consumers in the highest income countries account for 86 percent of total private consumption expenditures while those living among the poorest 20 percent account for 1. …

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