How much should you believe the numbers in figures like this?
People in the effective altruism community often refer to the global income distribution to make various points:
- The richest people in the world are many times richer than the poor.
- People earning professional salaries in countries like the US are usually in the top 5% of global earnings and fairly often in the top 1%. This gives them a disproportionate ability to improve the world.
- Many people in the world live in serious absolute poverty, surviving on as little as one hundredth the income of the upper-middle class in the US.
Measuring the global income distribution is very difficult and experts who attempt to do so end up with different results. However, these core points are supported by every attempt to measure the global income distribution that we’ve seen so far.
The rest of this post will discuss the global income distribution data we’ve referred to, the uncertainty inherent in that data, and why we believe our bottom lines hold up anyway.
Will MacAskill had a striking illustration of global individual income distribution in his book Doing Good Better, that has ended up in many other articles online, including our own career guide:
The data in this graph was put together back in 2012 using an approach suggested by Branko Milanovic,