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One graphic that shows your mom was right: the world isn't fair

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Wanna hear something unfair? At least half of your total earning potential, for your whole life, was determined by a total accident when you were born. And for the vast majority of people on Earth, nothing they'll ever do will change that.

That's according to a new study by Branko Milanovic, the former lead economist at the World Bank's research division and now affiliated with the University of Maryland. Milanovic's study divided countries into 100 classes by annual income: for example, the mean yearly income among the poorest 1 percent in the US would be the first percentile, and the richest 1 percent would be the 100th percentile.

The below chart shows the range of incomes in PPP-adjusted dollars, from bottom to top percentile, in three countries: India, South Korea, and the United States. It shows just how staggeringly important the luck of where you're born is:

inequality flagpole take 3

(Javier Zarracina/Vox. Data from Branko Milanovic)

America's poorest 1 percent makes on average more than 10 times what India's poorest makes — and America's richest 1 percent makes more than 25 times their Indian equivalent. Hard work and good luck pays off a lot more if you happen to be American.

These numbers are especially stunning because less than 3 percent of people worldwide live somewhere that isn't their home country. For the other 97 percent, their income potential is set by their country's GDP: wealthier countries have more money for everyone, which makes their poor poorer and their rich, on average, richer.

Milanovic's study actually quantified how much this matters. According to his model, "at least" half of the global variation in individual incomes is set by how rich different countries are and how unequal they are internally. That means a huge chunk of your income is set by two things: where you're born, and the way income there is distributed. That's it. And you have zero control over either of them.

Does that sound even remotely fair to you? If not, it's time to start thinking about how much you can do to make the world a slightly less unequal place.