January 13, 2015

The Birth Lottery and Global Inequality

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

When you think of inequality what comes to mind? As sociologists, many of us are trained to immediately point to the “holy trinity” of sociological analysis: race, gender, and class. We may think of the achievement gap in education, the gender pay gap, the extreme disparity between CEO pay and average worker pay, or toxic or environmental injustice as some of the typical manifestations of inequality. There is no denying the importance of race, class, and gender to any discussion of social stratification. However, there is another dimension of inequality that is arguably more pernicious than the holy trinity but is not spoken about nearly as much: the country in which you were born.

If you follow the news in your community, you probably saw coverage of the first babies born in 2015. Newspapers and television stations often highlight the babies born at 12:01 a.m. on January 1st of each year. Approximately 255 babies are born worldwide each minute so there are quite few babies around the globe who may lay claim to being the first born of 2015.

With 255 babies born every minute that amounts to approximately 367,000 babies born each day. Unbeknownst to these newly delivered earthlings, they are participants of a daily, high stakes global lottery. We generally don’t think of birth as a type of lottery but that is essentially what it amounts to when we consider the life chances of these babies and how their birth location has a significant effect on the structural inequalities they may face.

This analogy of a birth lottery suggests that if fate is on your side, and you are lucky enough to be born in a wealthy country, you will more likely enjoy the great fortunes and opportunities that come from being a citizen of that country. Conversely, if you “lose” the birth lottery, and you are born in a poor country, your life chances and circumstances will mostly likely suffer accordingly. 

To illustrate the power of the birth lottery, we can consider some of the typical indicators of inequality and compare the global disparities with the disparities in the United States. As we will see, the discrepancies of inequality on a global scale are significantly more extreme than in the United States.

Infant Mortality. The likelihood that any one of the 367,000 babies born each day will actually live to see their first birthday is largely dependent on where they were born. Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality rate (the number of babies per 1,000 that die in their first year) in the world at 187.5.  Monaco has the lowest rate in the world at 1.81. By comparison, in the United States the infant mortality rate is 6.1—what some have termed a “national embarrassment.” The U.S. infant mortality rate by race illustrates some deep structural inequalities with the non-Hispanic black rate at 11.46 and the white rate at 5.18. These domestic statistics are indeed disturbing; however, they are nowhere near the extremes of inequality that occur on the global level.  

Life expectancies also vary drastically by country.  For example, a baby born in Chad has a life expectancy of 49.4 whereas a baby born in Japan has a life expectancy of 84.5. Looking at the United States, the average life expectancy is 78.5 with whites coming in at 78.8 and blacks at 74.2. These domestic numbers show some evidence of structural inequalities but as with infant mortality rates, the differences in no way compare to the drastic range of life expectancies we see around the world.

Literacy rates (the percentage of the population age 15 and older who can read and write) is another statistic that varies widely by location. Some countries such as Finland and Norway have a literacy rate of 100%. At the bottom of the list are countries like South Sudan and Mali with literacy rates of 27%. In the United States, literacy rates are somewhat debatable. By some measures, the U. S. has a robust literacy rate of 99%; however, a recent U.S. Department of Education report indicated that 14% of adults in the U.S. cannot read. In either case, although there is still a persistent educational achievement gap in the United States, the literacy gap has narrowed significantly in the past 40 years.

Malnutrition death rates (the number of people per 100,000 that die from malnutrition) range from a high of 53.3 in Haiti to a low of 0.0 in Greece. The likelihood of dying from not having enough food and nutrients is clearly connected to the country in which one is born. In the United States, about 1% of children suffer from malnutrition, a number that may also be deemed a national embarrassment given the wealth and resources of this country. And although we see low-income individuals and people of color suffering disproportionately from lack of adequate food, countries like Haiti—and many others like it—are dealing with this issue on an entirely different scale.

One of the key insights of these statistics is that global inequality must be viewed as an ascribed status—as something that we are born into and inherit—and not as an achieved status based on our hard work and effort. These statistics convincingly refute the “myth of meritocracy” that suggests that our position in life is largely a result of our own actions. Instead, we should recognize that factors out of our control, such as what country we are born in, may dictate how long we live, whether we can read and write, and the amount of food and nutrients that will be available to us.

This point is also one of the key conclusions from sociologists Roberto Patricio Korzeniewicz and Timothy Patrick Moran in their book, Unveiling Inequality: A World-Historical Perspective. As Korzeniewicz and Moran suggest, these extreme levels of global disparity are not just the result of a matter of differences in individual accomplishments and industriousness. Rather, there are “institutional arrangements” between and within nations that have occurred globally and over a long historical periods to create these structures of extreme inequality. To illustrate their point further, the authors point out that the health care expenditures for dogs in the United States is higher than the health care expenditures for people “in countries that account for over 80 percent of the world population.”

Focusing on global inequality and the birth lottery does not negate the importance of the holy trinity of sociological analysis. Race, gender, and class are still significant variables and their effects within rich and poor countries are certainly felt (i.e., women around the world are much more likely to be illiterate than men). The purpose in turning our attention to global inequalities is to gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which the lives of individuals are structured by external forces. We don’t get to choose to be born in one country over another country and yet, the fate of our birth location largely determines the choices and chances we get to make as we live and grow.


Very nicely written blognote with good information and a great sense of the key issue - merit vs luck in determining inequality. Just wanted to say this.

If there is a huge gap of education presiding in the country. its because education is made out of the reach of ordinary people.these high cost, which education contains, is making the residents illiterate!. that's why, more focus should be shifted towards online education so that more results are achieved!

Political shocks, institutional changes, and economic development play a major role in wealth inequality. I do not view r>g (return on capital -"r" - outpaces the growth rate of the economy -"g"- over time) as the only or even the primary tool for considering changes in income and wealth in the 20th century or for forecasting the path of inequality in the 21st century. Piketty’s r > g doesn’t adequately differentiate among different kinds of capital with different social utility. Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

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