In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement began an organized effort—primarily through protests and other acts of civil disobedience—to spotlight the impact of increasing income inequality and overall economic inequality in the U.S. and around the globe.

While the first Occupy Wall Street protest to gain widespread attention was in New York City's Zuccotti Park (just blocks away from the physical location of Wall Street, the eight east-west blocks from Broadway to South Street in Manhattan), the movement eventually spread to over 951 cities across more than 82 countries.

Although the protestors have since retreated from Wall Street and other economic power centers, this pressing issue still lingers. In fact, economic disparity is on the rise. According to a 2019 report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, only 1% of the world’s population currently holds over 44% of household wealth.

Top 1% Hold Reach Highest Wages Ever

In the U.S., wage data released in 2018 by the Economic Policy Institute revealed that the top 1% reached the highest wages ever in 2017 (up 157.3% since 1979). A separate report by the Economic Policy Institute revealed that from 2009 to 2015, the incomes of the top 1% grew faster than the incomes of the bottom 99 percent in 43 states and the District of Columbia, and the top 1% captured half or more of all income growth in nine states in the U.S.

Key Takeaways

  • In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement began an organized effort—primarily through protests and other acts of civil disobedience—to spotlight the impact of increasing income inequality and overall economic inequality in the U.S. and around the globe.
  • The income required to be in the top 1% varies greatly based on what country you live in.
  • According to a 2019 report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, only 1% of the world’s population currently holds over 44% of household wealth.
  • In the U.S., wage data released in 2018 by the Economic Policy Institute revealed that the top 1% reached the highest wages ever in 2017 (up 157.3% since 1979).

Income Disparity Around the World

The income required to be in the top 1% varies greatly based on what country you live in. According to a list compiled by Bloomberg (using data from the World Inequality Database and Statistics Canada), it takes about $488,000 to be considered part of the top 1% in the U.S in 2019.

On the other hand, in Australia, it takes about half of that amount to be counted amongst the top 1%: only $246,000. Of course, this data also reveals that there is a slight difference in the average incomes between these two countries; according to the same report, the average income in the U.S. is $62,850 and the average income in Australia is $53,190.

On a global scale, an individual must have upwards of $744,400 in combined income, investments, and personal assets to rank in the top 1% of the world’s wealthiest individuals.

How Debt Impacts Wealth in the United States

According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook, while Americans rank fourth in household wages worldwide, they rank much lower in median wealth: at only 22nd. This disparity can largely be explained by the fact that Americans rely on various sources of credit more than individuals from other countries.

In fact, American household debt hit a record of $13.21 trillion in 2018. The Federal Reserve Board conducts a Survey of Consumer Finances every three years; the most recent data available from the 2016 survey revealed information about consumer debt in the U.S. based on demographics, such as age, income, ethnicity, family type, and education level.

Data from the survey showed that peak earning years are also peak debt years; the age group with the highest level of debt was Americans ages 35 to 44, whose debt averages out at $133,100.

Causes of Income Inequality

The growth in the level of inequality, specifically in the U.S., can partially be attributed to the fact that the economic growth that the U.S. experienced in the aftermath of the economic downturn, referred to as the Great Recession, has primarily benefited the wealthiest Americans.

According to a report by the Pew Research Center, despite the post-2000 economic growth in the U.S.—as evidenced in the low rates of unemployment and a strong labor market—there was very little wage growth amongst middle-class and lower-class Americans. Those Americans that did experience wage growth during the economic recovery were primarily those that had already ranked among the wealthiest Americans prior to the economic downturn referred to as the Great Recession. Lower- and middle-class wages have mostly stagnated and, at times, even declined.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2018, for most Americans, real wages (wages after adjusting for inflation) have changed very little in decades. In 2018, the average hourly wage had just about the same purchasing power it did in 1978. In the time period before the Great Recession, the disconnect between the strong job market (and overall economic growth) and the amount that workers were taking home in their paychecks was one of the main instigators of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It also propelled some changes in the aftermath of this activism, including legislation around raising minimum wages in many cities across the U.S.

Extreme Poverty Is a Barrier to Equality

However, extreme poverty around the world makes it very clear that despite the vast differences in wealth in the U.S., the majority of citizens living in developed countries–even those that are considered lower- or middle-class in their respective countries–are much better off than those living in countries where the majority of their citizens experience poverty.

In India, the typical adult claims just $7,024 in assets, while the average African adult citizen holds only $4,138 in total wealth. This is radically different than average American and European adults, who possess $403,974 and $144,903 in wealth, respectively.

In short, the Occupy Wall Street Movement reminds us that although many Americans strive toward constantly greater levels of wealth, they should also constantly bear in mind that the citizens of developed countries tend to be far more affluent than most people on earth.