Switch on the news and you see record-breaking protests, historic uprisings and riots on once-calm streets – there’s no doubt that the contents of people’s pay slips are becoming an issue of central importance. And the world wants to know more about it; the Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 showed that of all the top 10 challenges, respondents were least happy with media coverage of income disparity.

The widening gap affects every part of our lives. It weakens social stability within countries and threatens security on a global scale. Looking ahead to 2014, it’s essential that we devise innovative solutions to the causes and consequences of a world becoming ever more unequal.

My organization, Care USA, once focused primarily on the countries at the bottom of the economic ladder – nations in which most of the population were living in extreme poverty. But now we’re seeing an increasing number of poor people who live in middle-income countries.

Despite robust macroeconomic growth, large segments of these societies are being left behind. The nature of our work is changing as we seek to address poverty in countries that are on the rise, where small groups enjoy unprecedented economic rewards while others are squeezed out of the middle classes into the clutches of poverty.

The effects of growing income inequality are also being seen within nations on the global stage, from large emerging markets such as China and India to the developed nations of the West. According to the Survey, increasing inequality is the top challenge facing North America.

The incredible wealth created in the US over the past decade has gone to an ever-shrinking portion of the population, and in many cases this disparity stems from the same roots as in developing nations. First among them is a lack of access to high-quality basic primary and secondary education for all levels of society. In the US, it has become prohibitively expensive for a middle-income family to send a child to college. Higher education ­– once seen as a great equalizer and engine for economic mobility ­– is becoming a privilege rather than a right.

But there are other examples. Chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, which are linked to poor diet and lack of exercise, are major causes of death and disease in the US. Yet there are “food deserts”, areas where it’s almost impossible to buy reasonably priced fresh fruit and vegetables. So people have little choice but to eat high-calorie, low-nutrient food.

Many of the same communities have streets that aren’t lit, where it’s not safe to go out alone to exercise, and we find that improving neighbourhoods can be just as important to well-being as access to medical care.

As people around the world see their education, income and health come under threat, the widening disparity in people’s incomes has become a focus for unrest. People are concerned about their basic needs, and this shows itself in a desire to change from one political leader to another.

It’s the young who are most willing to take to the streets. Perhaps they feel they have less to lose. Many college graduates are unable to find jobs, and some countries have over 50% youth unemployment. Over the next decade, particularly in developing countries where much of the population is under 30, the lack of jobs will increase the likelihood of political and social strife.

To counteract income inequality, it’s essential to tackle poverty in an integrated way that has long-term effects. We need to give people the capacity to be resilient, to take on challenges and to learn the skills they need to work towards more prosperous futures.

We should also look at broader social inequalities, such as gender discrimination. Girls and women are disproportionately affected by poverty, and they are also the ones who bring about the biggest change in societies.

With political will and strategic initiatives, we can prevent more and more of our global neighbours from falling into the abyss of poverty and, instead, give future generations the opportunities they need to rise to their fullest potential.

This is an extract from the Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014, published this week.

Read a blog on the top 10 trends facing the world in 2014.

Author: Helene D Gayle is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Care USA, and a Member of the Global Agenda Council on Poverty and Sustainable Development.

Image: A woman carries her son as she begs for money at a red light along a busy street in Shanghai March 20, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Barria