Visualizing Global Income Distribution Over 200 Years
Has the world become more unequal?
With COVID-19 disrupting societies and lower-income countries in particular, social and economic progress made over the last decade is in danger of being reversed. And with rising living costs and inflation across much of the world, experts warn that global income inequality has been exacerbated.
But the good news is that absolute incomes across many poorer countries have significantly risen over the last century of time. And though work remains, poverty levels have fallen dramatically in spite of stark inequality.
To analyze historical trends in global income distribution, this infographic from Our World in Data looks at three periods over the last two centuries. It uses economic data from 1800, 1975, and 2015 compiled by Hans and Ola Rosling.
For global income estimates, data was gathered by country across three key variables:
- GDP per capita
- Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality by statistical distribution
Daily incomes were measured in a hypothetical “international-$” currency, equal to what a US dollar would buy in America in 2011, to allow for comparable incomes across time periods and countries.
Historical Patterns in Global Income Distribution
In 1800, over 80% of the world lived in what we consider extreme poverty today.
At the time, only a small number of countries—predominantly Western European countries, Australia, Canada and the US—saw meaningful economic growth. In fact, research suggests that between 1 CE and 1800 CE the majority of places around the world saw miniscule economic growth (only 0.04% annually).
By 1975, global income distribution became bimodal. Most citizens in developing countries lived below the poverty line, while most in developed countries lived above it, with incomes nearly 10 times higher on average. Post-WWII growth was unusually rapid across developed countries.
Fast forward just 40 years to 2015 and world income distribution changed again. As incomes rose faster in poorer countries than developed ones, many people were lifted out of poverty. Between 1975 and 2015, poverty declined faster than at any other time. Still, steep inequality persisted.
A Tale of Different Economic Outputs
Even as global income distribution has started to even out, economic output has trended in the opposite direction.
As the above interactive chart shows, GDP per capita was much more equal across regions in the 19th century, when it sat around $1,100 per capita on a global basis. Despite many people living below the poverty line during these times, the world also had less wealth to go around.
Today, the global average GDP per capita sits at close to $15,212 or about 14 times higher, but it is not as equally distributed.
At the highest end of the spectrum are Western and European countries. Strong economic growth, greater industrial output, and sufficient legal institutions have helped underpin higher GDP per capita numbers. Meanwhile, countries with the lowest average incomes have not seen the same levels of growth.
This highlights that poverty, and economic prosperity, is heavily influenced by where one lives.