In a world where the 85 richest people have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest, the United Nations said in its annual human development report that governments need to put a higher priority on creating jobs and providing basic social services.
It said that the progress made in longevity, education and income, has slowed due to rising inequality and economic disruptions, to along with natural disasters and bad government policies.
In spite of that most people are doing better thanks to advances in education, technology and incomes, the report said. But it points out a "widespread sense of precariousness in the world today in livelihoods, the environment, personal security and politics."
Nearly half of all workers are underemployed while some 842 million, or about 12 percent, of all people go hungry, it said.
The report ranks Norway at the top of the Human Development Index, followed by Australia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the United States.
The report reflects the growing conviction among many working in global policymaking and poverty alleviation that the gains made in the late 20th century risk being eroded by climate change, a global "race to the bottom" by big corporations that is forcing more and more workers to live on less and government budgets "balanced on the backs of the poor," said Khalid Malik, a lead author of the report.
Adding that, "Most problems are due to inadequate policies and poor institutions, It's not innate that people have to suffer so much."
Income support, job creation policies and equitable access to health, education and other services, are investments in "human capital" that can secure faster, more sustainable growth in the long run, the report says.
"If you invest in people, if you upgrade your infrastructure and increase the choices available to all you will have a more stable society," Malik said.
Nearly one-third of people are poor or vulnerable to poverty, meaning they are not resilient in the face of natural or human-induced disasters and can slip further behind, according to the report.
Ending poverty is not just about "getting to zero, but about staying there," said UN human development head Helen Clark.
Call for universal access to social programs
The report calls for "universal access to basic social services, especially health and education; stronger social protection, including unemployment insurance and pensions; and a commitment to full employment, recognizing
that the value of employment extends far beyond the income it generates."
Such investments in human capital pay off in the long run in lower infant mortality and greater resilience in the face of disaster, the report says.
It says global trends in human development, including income, education and life expectancy, are positive, but not guaranteed to remain on that track.