Economic inequality is the difference found in various measures of economic well-being among individuals in a group, among groups in a population, or among countries. Economic inequality sometimes refers to income inequality, wealth inequality, or the wealth gap. Economists generally focus on economic disparity in three metrics: wealth, income, and consumption. The issue of economic inequality is relevant to notions of equity, equality of outcome, and equality of opportunity.
Economic inequality varies between societies, historical periods, economic structures and systems. The term can refer to cross-sectional distribution of income or wealth at any particular period, or to changes of income and wealth over longer periods of time. There are various numerical indices for measuring economic inequality. A widely used index is the Gini coefficient, but there are also many other methods.
Some studies say economic inequality is a social problem, for example too much inequality can be destructive, because it might hinder long term growth. However, too much income equality is also destructive since it decreases the incentive for productivity and the desire to take-on risks and create wealth.
Differences in national income equality around the world as measured by the national Gini coefficient. The Gini coefficient is a number between 0 and 1, where 0 corresponds with perfect equality (where everyone has the same income) and 1 corresponds with absolute inequality (where one person has all the income, and everyone else has zero income).
Empirical measurements of inequality Edit
The first set of income distribution statistics for the United States covering the period from (1913–48) was published in 1952 by Simon Kuznets, Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings. It relied on US federal income tax returns and Kuznets’s own estimates of US national income, National Income: A Summary of Findings (1946). Others who contributed to development of accurate income distribution statistics during the early 20th century were John Whitefield Kendrick in the United States, Arthur Bowley and Colin Clark in the UK, and L. Dugé de Bernonville in France.
Economists generally consider three metrics of economic dispersion: wealth, income, and consumption. A skilled professional may have low wealth and low income as student, low wealth and high earnings in the beginning of the career, and high wealth and low earnings after the career. People’s preferences determine whether they consume earnings immediately or defer consumption to the future. The distinction is also important at the level of economy:
There are economies with high income inequality and relatively low wealth inequality (such as Japan and Italy).
There are economies with relatively low income inequality and high wealth inequality (such as Switzerland and Denmark).
There are different ways to measure income inequality and wealth inequality. Different choices lead to different results. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) provides data on the following eight types of income inequality:
Dispersion of hourly wages among full-time (or full-time equivalent) workers
Wage dispersion among workers – E.g. annual wages, including wages from part-time work or work during only part of the year.
Individual earnings inequality among all workers – Includes the self-employed.
Individual earnings inequality among the entire working-age population – Includes those who are inactive, e.g. students, unemployed, early pensioners, etc.
Household earnings inequality – Includes the earnings of all household members.
Household market income inequality – Includes incomes from capital, savings and private transfers.
Household disposable income inequality – Includes public cash transfers received and direct taxes paid.
Household adjusted disposable income inequality – Includes publicly provided services.
There are many challenges in comparing data between economies, or in a single economy in different years. Examples of challenges include:
Data can be based on joint taxation of couples (e.g. France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland) or individual taxation (e.g. Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, the UK).
The tax authorities generally only collect information on income that is potentially taxable.
The precise definition of gross income varies from country to country. There are differences when it comes to inclusion of pension entitlements and other savings, and benefits such as employer provided health insurance.
Differences when it comes under-declaration of income and/or wealth in tax filings.
A special event like an exit from business may lead to a very high income in one year, but much lower income in other years of the person’s lifetime.
Much income and wealth in non-western countries is obtained or held extra-legally through black market and underground activities such as unregistered businesses, informal property ownership arrangements, etc.
Share of income of the top 1% for selected developed countries, 1975 to 2015.
A 2011 study “Divided we Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising” by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) investigated economic inequality in OECD countries, including the following factors:
Changes in the structure of households can play an important role. Single-headed households in OECD countries have risen from an average of 15% in the late 1980s to 20% in the mid-2000s, resulting in higher inequality.
Assortative mating refers to the phenomenon of people marrying people with similar background, for example doctors marrying doctors rather than nurses. OECD found out that 40% of couples where both partners work belonged to the same or neighbouring earnings deciles compared with 33% some 20 years before.
In the bottom percentiles number of hours worked has decreased.
The main reason for increasing inequality seems to be the difference between the demand for and supply of skills.
Income inequality in OECD countries is at its highest level for the past half century. The ratio between the bottom 10% and the top 10% has increased from 1:7, to 1:9 in 25 years.
There are tentative signs of a possible convergence of inequality levels towards a common and higher average level across OECD countries.
With very few exceptions (France, Japan, and Spain), the wages of the 10% best-paid workers have risen relative to those of the 10% lowest paid.
A 2011 OECD study investigated economic inequality in Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia and South Africa. It concluded that key sources of inequality in these countries include “a large, persistent informal sector, widespread regional divides (e.g. urban-rural), gaps in access to education, and barriers to employment and career progression for women.”
A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at United Nations University reports that the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000. The three richest people in the world possess more financial assets than the lowest 48 nations combined. The combined wealth of the “10 million dollar millionaires” grew to nearly $41 trillion in 2008. A January 2014 report by Oxfam claims that the 85 wealthiest individuals in the world have a combined wealth equal to that of the bottom 50% of the world’s population, or about 3.5 billion people. According to a Los Angeles Times analysis of the report, the wealthiest 1% owns 46% of the world’s wealth; the 85 richest people, a small part of the wealthiest 1%, own about 0.7% of the human population’s wealth, which is the same as the bottom half of the population. More recently, in January 2015, Oxfam reported that the wealthiest 1 percent will own more than half of the global wealth by 2016. An October 2014 study by Credit Suisse also claims that the top 1% now own nearly half of the world’s wealth and that the accelerating disparity could trigger a recession. In October 2015, Credit Suisse published a study which shows global inequality continues to increase, and that half of the world’s wealth is now in the hands of those in the top percentile, whose assets each exceed $759,900. A 2016 report by Oxfam claims that the 62 wealthiest individuals own as much wealth as the poorer half of the global population combined. Oxfam’s claims have however been questioned on the basis of the methodology used: by using net wealth (adding up assets and subtracting debts), the Oxfam report, for instance, finds that there are more poor people in the United States and Western Europe than in China (due to a greater tendency to take on debts).[unreliable source?][unreliable source?] Anthony Shorrocks, the lead author of the Credit Suisse report which is one of the sources of Oxfam’s data, considers the criticism about debt to be a “silly argument” and “a non-issue . . . a diversion.” Oxfam’s 2017 report says the top eight billionaires have as much wealth as the bottom half of the global population, and that rising inequality is suppressing wages, as businesses are focused on delivering higher returns to wealthy owners and executives.
According to PolitiFact the top 400 richest Americans “have more wealth than half of all Americans combined.” According to the New York Times on July 22, 2014, the “richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent”. Inherited wealth may help explain why many Americans who have become rich may have had a “substantial head start”. In September 2012, according to the Institute for Policy Studies, “over 60 percent” of the Forbes richest 400 Americans “grew up in substantial privilege”.
The existing data and estimates suggest a large increase in international (and more generally inter-macroregional) component between 1820 and 1960. It might have slightly decreased since that time at the expense of increasing inequality within countries.
The United Nations Development Programme in 2014 asserted that greater investments in social security, jobs and laws that protect vulnerable populations are necessary to prevent widening income inequality….
There is a significant difference in the measured wealth distribution and the public’s understanding of wealth distribution. Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of the Department of Psychology at Duke University found this to be true in their research, done in 2011. The actual wealth going to the top quintile in 2011 was around 84% where as the average amount of wealth that the general public estimated to go to the top quintile was around 58%.
Two researchers claim that global income inequality is decreasing, due to strong economic growth in developing countries. However, the OECD reported in 2015 that income inequality is higher than it has ever been within OECD member nations and is at increased levels in many emerging economies. According to a June 2015 report by the International Monetary Fund:
Widening income inequality is the defining challenge of our time. In advanced economies, the gap between the rich and poor is at its highest level in decades. Inequality trends have been more mixed in emerging markets and developing countries (EMDCs), with some countries experiencing declining inequality, but pervasive inequities in access to education, health care, and finance remain.[
There are various reasons for economic inequality within societies. Recent growth in overall income inequality, at least within the OECD countries, has been driven mostly by increasing inequality in wages and salaries.
Economist Thomas Piketty argues that widening economic disparity is an inevitable phenomenon of free market capitalism when the rate of return of capital (r) is greater than the rate of growth of the economy (g).
Common factors thought to impact economic inequality include:
labor market outcomes
suppressing wages in low-skill jobs due to a surplus of low-skill labor in developing countries
increasing the market size and the rewards for people and firms succeeding in a particular niche
providing more investment opportunities for already-wealthy people
increasing international influence 
decreasing domestic influence 
extra-legal ownership of property (real estate and business)
more regressive taxation
computerization, automation and increased technology, which means more skills are required to obtain a moderate or high wage
variation in natural ability
Growing acceptance of very high CEO salaries, e.g. in the United States since the 1960s
Land speculation – Followers of Henry George believe that landlords and land speculators derive excess wealth and income from the tendency of land to increase exponentially with development and at a much higher rate than population growth. Their solution is to tax land value, though not necessarily structures or other improvements. This concept is known as Georgism.
Theoretical frameworks Edit
Neoclassical economics Edit
Neoclassical economics views inequalities in the distribution of income as arising from differences in value added by labor, capital and land. Within labor income distribution is due to differences in value added by different classifications of workers. In this perspective, wages and profits are determined by the marginal value added of each economic actor (worker, capitalist/business owner, landlord). Thus, in a market economy, inequality is a reflection of the productivity gap between highly-paid professions and lower-paid professions.
Marxian economics Edit
Marxian economics attributes rising inequality to job automation and capital deepening within capitalism. The process of job automation conflicts with the capitalist property form and its attendant system of wage labor.
In Marxian analysis, capitalist firms increasingly substitute capital equipment for labor inputs (workers) under competitive pressure to reduce costs and maximize profits. Over the long-term, this trend increases the organic composition of capital, meaning that less workers are required in proportion to capital inputs, increasing unemployment (the “reserve army of labour”). This process exerts a downward pressure on wages. The substitution of capital equipment for labor (mechanization and automation) raises the productivity of each worker, resulting in a situation of relatively stagnant wages for the working class amidst rising levels of property income for the capitalist class.
Labour market Edit
A major cause of economic inequality within modern market economies is the determination of wages by the market. Where competition is imperfect; information unevenly distributed; opportunities to acquire education and skills unequal market failure results. Since many such imperfect conditions exist in virtually every market, there is in fact little presumption that markets are in general efficient. This means that there is an enormous potential role for government to correct such market failures.
In a purely capitalist mode of production (i.e. where professional and labor organizations cannot limit the number of workers) the workers wages will not be controlled by these organizations, or by the employer, but rather by the market. Wages work in the same way as prices for any other good. Thus, wages can be considered as a function of market price of skill. And therefore, inequality is driven by this price. Under the law of supply and demand, the price of skill is determined by a race between the demand for the skilled worker and the supply of the skilled worker. “On the other hand, markets can also concentrate wealth, pass environmental costs on to society, and abuse workers and consumers.” “Markets, by themselves, even when they are stable, often lead to high levels of inequality, outcomes that are widely viewed as unfair.” Employers who offer a below market wage will find that their business is chronically understaffed. Their competitors will take advantage of the situation by offering a higher wage the best of their labor. For a businessman who has the profit motive as the prime interest, it is a losing proposition to offer below or above market wages to workers.
A job where there are many workers willing to work a large amount of time (high supply) competing for a job that few require (low demand) will result in a low wage for that job. This is because competition between workers drives down the wage. An example of this would be jobs such as dish-washing or customer service. Competition amongst workers tends to drive down wages due to the expendable nature of the worker in relation to his or her particular job. A job where there are few able or willing workers (low supply), but a large need for the positions (high demand), will result in high wages for that job. This is because competition between employers for employees will drive up the wage. Examples of this would include jobs that require highly developed skills, rare abilities, or a high level of risk. Competition amongst employers tends to drive up wages due to the nature of the job, since there is a relative shortage of workers for the particular position. Professional and labor organizations may limit the supply of workers which results in higher demand and greater incomes for members. Members may also receive higher wages through collective bargaining, political influence, or corruption
These supply and demand interactions result in a gradation of wage levels within society that significantly influence economic inequality. Polarization of wages does not explain the accumulation of wealth and very high incomes among the 1%. Joseph Stiglitz believes that “It is plain that markets must be tamed and tempered to make sure they work to the benefit of most citizens.”
On the other hand, higher economic inequality tends to increase entrepreneurship rates at the individual level (self-employment). However, most of it is often based on necessity rather than opportunity. Necessity-based entrepreneurship is motivated by survival needs such as income for food and shelter (“push” motivations), whereas opportunity-based entrepreneurship is driven by achievement-oriented motivations (“pull”) such as vocation and more likely to involve the pursue of new products, services, or underserved market needs. The economic impact of the former type of entrepreneurialism tends to be redistributive while the latter is expected to foster technological progress and thus have a more positive impact on economic growth.
Another cause is the rate at which income is taxed coupled with the progressivity of the tax system. A progressive tax is a tax by which the tax rate increases as the taxable base amount increases. In a progressive tax system, the level of the top tax rate will often have a direct impact on the level of inequality within a society, either increasing it or decreasing it, provided that income does not change as a result of the change in tax regime. Additionally, steeper tax progressivity applied to social spending can result in a more equal distribution of income across the board. The difference between the Gini index for an income distribution before taxation and the Gini index after taxation is an indicator for the effects of such taxation.
There is debate between politicians and economists over the role of tax policy in mitigating or exacerbating wealth inequality. Economists such as Paul Krugman, Peter Orszag, and Emmanuel Saez have argued that tax policy in the post World War II era has indeed increased income inequality by enabling the wealthiest Americans far greater access to capital than lower-income ones.
Illustration from a 1916 advertisement for a vocational school in the back of a US magazine. Education has been seen as a key to higher income, and this advertisement appealed to Americans’ belief in the possibility of self-betterment, as well as threatening the consequences of downward mobility in the great income inequality existing during the Industrial Revolution.
An important factor in the creation of inequality is variation in individuals’ access to education. Education, especially in an area where there is a high demand for workers, creates high wages for those with this education, however, increases in education first increase and then decrease growth as well as income inequality. As a result, those who are unable to afford an education, or choose not to pursue optional education, generally receive much lower wages. The justification for this is that a lack of education leads directly to lower incomes, and thus lower aggregate savings and investment. Conversely, education raises incomes and promotes growth because it helps to unleash the productive potential of the poor.
In 2014, economists with the Standard & Poor’s rating agency concluded that the widening disparity between the U.S.’s wealthiest citizens and the rest of the nation had slowed its recovery from the 2008–09 recession and made it more prone to boom-and-bust cycles. To partially remedy the wealth gap and the resulting slow growth, S&P recommended increasing access to education. It estimated that if the average United States worker had completed just one more year of school, it would add an additional $105 billion in growth to the country’s economy over five years.
During the mass high school education movement from 1910–40, there was an increase in skilled workers, which led to a decrease in the price of skilled labor. High school education during the period was designed to equip students with necessary skill sets to be able to perform at work. In fact, it differs from the present high school education, which is regarded as a stepping-stone to acquire college and advanced degrees. This decrease in wages caused a period of compression and decreased inequality between skilled and unskilled workers. Education is very important for the growth of the economy, however educational inequality in gender also influence towards the economy. Lagerlof and Galor stated that gender inequality in education can result to low economic growth, and continued gender inequality in education, thus creating a poverty trap. It is suggested that a large gap in male and female education may indicate backwardness and so may be associated with lower economic growth, which can explain why there is economic inequality between countries.
More of Barro studies also find that female secondary education is positively associated with growth. His findings show that countries with low female education; increasing it has little effect on economic growth, however in countries with high female education, increasing it significantly boosts economic growth. More and better education is a prerequisite for rapid economic development around the world. Education stimulates economic growth and improves people’s lives through many channels.
By increasing the efficiency of the labour force it create better conditions for good governance, improving health and enhancing equality. Labor market success is linked to schooling achievement, the consequences of widening disparities in schooling is likely to be further increases in earnings inequality
The United States funds education through property taxes, which can lead to large discrepancies in the amount of funding a public school may receive. Often, but not always, this results in more funding for schools attended by children from wealthier parents. As of 2015 the United States, Israel, and Turkey are the only three OECD countries where the government spends more on schools in rich neighborhoods than in poor neighborhoods.
Economic liberalism, deregulation and decline of unions Edit
John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer (2006) of the CEPR point to economic liberalism and the reduction of business regulation along with the decline of union membership as one of the causes of economic inequality. In an analysis of the effects of intensive Anglo-American liberal policies in comparison to continental European liberalism, where unions have remained strong, they concluded “The U.S. economic and social model is associated with substantial levels of social exclusion, including high levels of income inequality, high relative and absolute poverty rates, poor and unequal educational outcomes, poor health outcomes, and high rates of crime and incarceration. At the same time, the available evidence provides little support for the view that.
A 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund found that the decline of unionization in many advanced economies starting in the 1980s has fueled rising income inequality.
In 2016, researchers at the IMF concluded that neoliberal policies imposed by economic elites have exacerbated inequality to such an extent that it is slowing economic growth and “jeopardizing durable expansion.” Their report highlights “three disquieting conclusions”:
The benefits in terms of increased growth seem fairly difficult to establish when looking at a broad group of countries.
The costs in terms of increased inequality are prominent. Such costs epitomize the trade-off between the growth and equity effects of some aspects of the neoliberal agenda.
Increased inequality in turn hurts the level and sustainability of growth. Even if growth is the sole or main purpose of the neoliberal agenda, advocates of that agenda still need to pay attention to the distributional effects.
Trade liberalization may shift economic inequality from a global to a domestic scale. When rich countries trade with poor countries, the low-skilled workers in the rich countries may see reduced wages as a result of the competition, while low-skilled workers in the poor countries may see increased wages. Trade economist Paul Krugman estimates that trade liberalisation has had a measurable effect on the rising inequality in the United States. He attributes this trend to increased trade with poor countries and the fragmentation of the means of production, resulting in low skilled jobs becoming more tradeable. However, he concedes that the effect of trade on inequality in America is minor when compared to other causes, such as technological innovation, a view shared by other experts. Empirical economists Max Roser and Jesus Crespo-Cuaresma find support in the data that international trade is increasing income inequality. They empirically confirm the predictions of the Stolper–Samuelson theorem regarding the effects of international trade on the distribution of incomes. Lawrence Katz estimates that trade has only accounted for 5-15% of rising income inequality. Robert Lawrence argues that technological innovation and automation has meant that low-skilled jobs have been replaced by machine labor in wealthier nations, and that wealthier countries no longer have significant numbers of low-skilled manufacturing workers that could be affected by competition from poor countries.
Economist Branko Milanovic analyzed global income inequality, comparing 1988 and 2008. His analysis indicated that the global top 1% and the middle classes of the emerging economies (e.g., China, India, Indonesia, Brazil and Egypt) were the main winners of globalization during that time. The real (inflation adjusted) income of the global top 1% increased approximately 60%, while the middle classes of the emerging economies (those around the 50th percentile of the global income distribution in 1988) rose 70-80%. On the other hand, those in the middle class of the developed world (those in the 75th to 90th percentile in 1988, such as the American middle class) experienced little real income gains. The richest 1% contains 60 million persons globally, including 30 million Americans (i.e., the top 12% of Americans by income were in the global top 1% in 2008).
19th century socialists like Robert Owen, William Thompson, Anna Wheeler and August Bebel argued that the economic inequality between genders was the leading cause of economic inequality; however Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels believed that the inequality between social classes was the larger cause of inequality.
Economist Simon Kuznets argued that levels of economic inequality are in large part the result of stages of development. According to Kuznets, countries with low levels of development have relatively equal distributions of wealth. As a country develops, it acquires more capital, which leads to the owners of this capital having more wealth and income and introducing inequality. Eventually, through various possible redistribution mechanisms such as social welfare programs, more developed countries move back to lower levels of inequality.
Plotting the relationship between level of income and inequality, Kuznets saw middle-income developing economies level of inequality bulging out to form what is now known as the Kuznets curve. Kuznets demonstrated this relationship using cross-sectional data. However, more recent testing of this theory with superior panel data has shown it to be very weak. Kuznets’ curve predicts that income inequality will eventually decrease given time. As an example, income inequality did fall in the United States during its High school movement from 1910 to 1940 and thereafter. However, recent data shows that the level of income inequality began to rise after the 1970s. This does not necessarily disprove Kuznets’ theory. It may be possible that another Kuznets’ cycle is occurring, specifically the move from the manufacturing sector to the service sector. This implies that it may be possible for multiple Kuznets’ cycles to be in effect at any given time.
Individual preferences Edit
Related to cultural issues, diversity of preferences within a society may contribute to economic inequality. When faced with the choice between working harder to earn more money or enjoying more leisure time, equally capable individuals with identical earning potential may choose different strategies. The trade-off between work and leisure is particularly important in the supply side of the labor market in labor economics.
Likewise, individuals in a society often have different levels of risk aversion. When equally-able individuals undertake risky activities with the potential of large payoffs, such as starting new businesses, some ventures succeed and some fail. The presence of both successful and unsuccessful ventures in a society results in economic inequality even when all individuals are identical.
Wealth concentration Edit
Main article: Wealth concentration
Wealth concentration is a theoretical[according to whom?] process by which, under certain conditions, newly created wealth concentrates in the possession of already-wealthy individuals or entities. According to this theory, those who already hold wealth have the means to invest in new sources of creating wealth or to otherwise leverage the accumulation of wealth, thus are the beneficiaries of the new wealth. Over time, wealth condensation can significantly contribute to the persistence of inequality within society. Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century argues that the fundamental force for divergence is the usually greater return of capital (r) than economic growth (g), and that larger fortunes generate higher returns [pp. 384 Table 12.2, U.S. university endowment size vs. real annual rate of return]
Rent seeking Edit
Economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that rather than explaining concentrations of wealth and income, market forces should serve as a brake on such concentration, which may better be explained by the non-market force known as “rent-seeking”. While the market will bid up compensation for rare and desired skills to reward wealth creation, greater productivity, etc., it will also prevent successful entrepreneurs from earning excess profits by fostering competition to cut prices, profits and large compensation. A better explainer of growing inequality, according to Stiglitz, is the use of political power generated by wealth by certain groups to shape government policies financially beneficial to them. This process, known to economists as rent-seeking, brings income not from creation of wealth but from “grabbing a larger share of the wealth that would otherwise have been produced without their effort”
Rent seeking is often thought to be the province of societies with weak institutions and weak rule of law, but Stiglitz believes there is no shortage of it in developed societies such as the United States.