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U.N. reports wider income gap in U.S., world

July 15, 1996
Web posted at: 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT)

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- Although the United States is a leading economic power, the chasm between its rich and poor is widening rapidly, according to a United Nations report.

Britain and Australia as well as Brazil and Guatemala show similar alarming trends, said the Human Development Report, an annual survey of countries' income and quality of life by the U.N. Development Program.


"I think (that) the major conclusions are that there are a lot of very rich people who are getting very, very rich, and there are a lot of very, very poor people who are getting even poorer," said U.N. spokeswoman Sylvana Foa.

According to the report, the world's 358 billionaires control assets greater than the combined annual incomes of countries with nearly half the world's population.

The report said wealth in the United States was increasingly confined to a relatively small group. Between 1975 and 1990, the wealthiest 1 percent of the population increased its share of financial assets from 20 percent to 36 percent.

At the same time the number of people living below the poverty line rose. Today the per capita income of the poorest 20 percent is less than a fourth of the country's average income.

In Japan, however, the poorest 20 percent have half of the country's average income. The gap is also narrower in the Netherlands, in poorer nations such as Bangladesh and Nepal, and in several east and southeast Asian nations where economic growth has accelerated and distribution of national wealth has been more equitable.

The United States ranks second -- behind Canada and ahead of Japan -- on a so-called Human Development Index, which measures health factors, education and basic purchasing power.

But the report said other trends point to a potential deterioration in the quality of life.

For instance, the report said the United States ranks only 18th among industrial nations in life expectancy and prevention of maternal deaths, and stood first in AIDS cases among wealthy countries, with 22.7 per 100,000 people compared to an average of nine cases per 100,000 in industrial nations.

Also, TV takes up 40 percent of the average person's free time and is responsible for a sharp reduction in voluntary activities that have distinguished American society, the study found.

Globally, the United Nations said some 1.6 billion people have lost ground over the past decade. "There are 90 countries that are worse off economically than they were 10 years ago," the report said.

The report says Japan has the greatest life expectancy, while the African nation of Sierre Leone ranks at the bottom with life expectancy rates barely averaging 40.


This is the seventh annual human development report. One critic, Columbia University economics professor Jagdish Bhagwati, gives it a low rating.

"I think they should concentrate much less on gimmicks like those indices and much more on analyzing specific problems," he said. "I'd like to see much more analytical work."

The United Nations insists that ranking the world's rate of development spurs governments to try to improve conditions, if only to keep up with other countries.

CNN Correspondent Richard Roth and Reuters contributed to this report.


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