Why Global Citizens Should Care
Worsening wealth inequality makes it harder to end poverty worldwide. The United Nations calls on countries to curb inequality and invest in societies that work for everyone. You can join us in taking action on this issue here.
“Together, these Big Tech billionaires could end global hunger (for about $300B). Twice.”
That’s the first calculation Jane Chung made in a Twitter thread that went viral on Wednesday, critiquing the individuals featured in Forbes’ 2021 “World’s Billionaires List.” She noted that Silicon Valley billionaires alone “could end global hunger, eradicate malaria, end homelessness in America, AND end the famine in Yemen,” and still have $20 billion to share.
Every year, Forbes compiles a list of the wealthiest people worldwide. This year’s list shows that 88% of billionaires got richer during the COVID-19 pandemic. All told, they own a collective $13.1 trillion, up from $8 trillion in 2019, according to Forbes. Meanwhile, extreme poverty increased during the pandemic for the first time in 20 years.
“It’s really difficult to imagine wealth of that magnitude,” Chung, a Big Tech accountability advocate at the nonprofit Public Citizen, told Global Citizen. “After a certain point, another zero is just another zero, and adding more zeros doesn’t really register in our heads.
“But I think putting it in terms of the real issues we’re facing in the world, most of them notably manmade and caused by capitalism, shows how they can be totally eradicated and solved with not even all of the wealth of the people involved in Big Tech.”
Chung said that many people were surprised by her analysis.
“The most common reaction was, ‘Yeah, I knew they were rich but I never thought about it in terms of how they could actually positively impact society, if they tried or had the desire to,’” she said.
While Chung was inspired to write the tweets by “a feeling of anger and hopelessness” at the worsening state of inequality, she was heartened by the overall response.
“I think the responses I’ve gotten are inspiring a lot of hope in me,” she said. “Whether they’re folks who have been organizing toward abolition and other causes for a really long time, or folks who are just realizing that a few people hold all of this wealth in our society, I think a lot of people are really fired up about this, and that’s exciting for me. I hope that we can channel it for the better.”
Before the pandemic, Oxfam reported that 2,153 billionaires owned more wealth than the poorest 4.6 billion people worldwide. This level of inequality both distorts economies by investing inordinate power in the hands of a small group of people and exacerbates the conditions of poverty, according to the United Nations.
It also fuels the climate crisis. In fact, the carbon footprint of the world’s richest 1% is double that of the poorest 50% of people. Many of the companies represented by people on the Forbes list have caused extensive environmental degradation.
“This list is used to glorify and edify a lot of billionaires for their success and merit and hard work, and I think it hides all of the harm that these people have inflicted on society in their pursuit of wealth,” she said.
Global Citizen’s Give While You Live campaign calls on billionaires to give 5% of their wealth each year to ending poverty and achieving the UN’s Global Goals. The philanthropists John and Laura Arnold recently became the first billionaires to take the pledge.
“Right now, many charities are in danger of not surviving the pandemic,” John Arnold said in the announcement on Monday. “Yet, more than $1 trillion promised to them remains warehoused in tax-free investment accounts. America’s charities cannot afford to wait for some larger crisis to arise. Business as usual is simply not good enough.”
Before the pandemic exacerbated inequality and curbed progress in the fight to end extreme poverty, Global Citizen reported that just $350 billion annually could achieve the Global Goals in the poorest 59 countries — an amount that could be covered more than 37 times by billionaires featured in the Forbes list.
Inspired by the Give While You Live campaign, Forbes partnered with Global Citizen in 2020 to develop the Forbes 400 Philanthropy score, ranking the world’s richest individuals in terms of how much they’ve given to charities and nonprofits, as opposed to money pledged sometime in the future or stowed away in a foundation or donor-advised fund. While many philanthropists scored poorly, others such as investor Warren Buffett and financier George Soros received top scores for giving away at least 20% of their wealth.
Chung believes this wealth can be used to build a better world for everyone.
“A better world is one in which everyone is full and housed and healthy,” she said. “Where everyone has all of their human and basic rights fulfilled, not just in the US, but literally the entire world.
“A better world is a world in which we’re all free to do what we want and have all the support that we need and the infrastructure we need to do that,” she said. “It’s where we realize that there’s enough to go around and that our job here as part of the human race is to take care of each other and to care for each other and we don’t have to step on each other’s heads to get to the top.”
She said that the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill and stimulus package recently passed by the Biden administration, shows that poverty can be eradicated.
“I think that’s a really promising sign toward spreading the realization that we can actually house people, that we can actually give people health care,” she said.