Story at a glance

  • The UN 2019 Human Development Report says income inequality is no longer the greatest indicator of equality in a society.
  • Inequality is decreasing in most societies for life expectancy at birth, the percentage of the population with a primary education and mobile-cellular subscriptions.
  • Inequality is increasing for life expectancy at age 70, the population with a tertiary education and fixed broadband subscriptions.

They say money can’t buy happiness, but what about equality? Unfortunately, according to UN report, it can’t buy that either. 

Income inequality is a benchmark for the level of equality in a city, country or society, but the UN’s 2019 Human Development Report released on Dec. 9 says its value is decreasing. 

“This report asks what forms of inequality matter and what drives them, recognizing that pernicious inequalities are generally better thought of as a symptom of broader problems in a society and economy,” says Pedro Conceição, director of the Human Development Report Office. 

Income and wealth should still be considered when measuring inequality, the report says, but inequalities in health, education, dignity and human rights are also a significant part of the equation. 

Some of these areas show significant improvement. The report said inequalities in life expectancy at birth, the percentage of the population with a primary education and mobile-cellular subscriptions are narrowing in most countries. And that gap is closing faster from the bottom end than the top. But there are increasing inequalities in other areas, such as life expectancy at age 70, the population with a tertiary education and fixed broadband subscriptions. 

"What we are seeing is an opening up of a new generation of inequalities, particularly centered around the emerging middle classes of societies," UNDP administrator Achim Steiner told NPR

Steiner says upward social mobility is just not happening any more, especially for the growing middle class. 

"It may and sometimes does have to do with income," Steiner told NPR. "But it may have also a lot to do with the fact that I know today that my child born into my family, into my neighborhood, already starts life at a significant disadvantage."

These inequalities “will likely determine people’s ability to seize the opportunities of the 21st century, function in a knowledge economy and cope with climate change,” the report says. Knowing them, the UN argues, gives societies a better chance at fixing them. 

Published on Dec 11, 2019