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.[
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.”
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.
Countries with a left-leaning legislature have lower levels of inequality. Many factors constrain economic inequality – they may be divided into two classes: government sponsored, and market driven. The relative merits and effectiveness of each approach is a subject of debate.
Typical government initiatives to reduce economic inequality include:
Public education: increasing the supply of skilled labor and reducing income inequality due to education differentials.
Progressive taxation: the rich are taxed proportionally more than the poor, reducing the amount of income inequality in society if the change in taxation does not cause changes in income.
Market forces outside of government intervention that can reduce economic inequality include:
propensity to spend: with rising wealth & income, a person may spend more. In an extreme example, if one person owned everything, they would immediately need to hire people to maintain their properties, thus reducing the wealth concentration.
Research shows that since 1300, the only periods with significant declines in wealth inequality in Europe were the Black Death and the two World Wars. Historian Walter Scheidel posits that, since the stone age, only extreme violence, catastrophes and upheaval in the form of total war, Communist revolution, pestilence and state collapse have significantly reduced inequality. He has stated that “only all-out thermonuclear war might fundamentally reset the existing distribution of resources” and that “peaceful policy reform may well prove unequal to the growing challenges ahead.”[
A 2011 OECD study makes a number of suggestions to its member countries, including:
Well-targeted income-support policies.
Facilitate and encourage access to employment.
Better job-related training and education for the low-skilled (on-the-job training) would help to boost their productivity potential and future earnings.
Better access to formal education.
Progressive taxation reduces absolute income inequality when the higher rates on higher-income individuals are paid and not evaded, and transfer payments and social safety nets result in progressive government spending. Wage ratio legislation has also been proposed as a means of reducing income inequality. The OECD asserts that public spending is vital in reducing the ever-expanding wealth gap.
The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty recommend much higher top marginal tax rates on the wealthy, up to 50 percent, or 70 percent or even 90 percent. Ralph Nader, Jeffrey Sachs, the United Front Against Austerity, among others, call for a financial transactions tax (also known as the Robin Hood tax) to bolster the social safety net and the public sector.
The Economist wrote in December 2013: “A minimum wage, providing it is not set too high, could thus boost pay with no ill effects on jobs….America’s federal minimum wage, at 38% of median income, is one of the rich world’s lowest. Some studies find no harm to employment from federal of state minimum wages, others see a small one, but none finds any serious damage.”
General limitations on and taxation of rent-seeking are popular across the political spectrum.
Public policy responses addressing causes and effects of income inequality in the US include: progressive tax incidence adjustments, strengthening social safety net provisions such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, welfare, the food stamp program, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, organizing community interest groups, increasing and reforming higher education subsidies, increasing infrastructure spending, and placing limits on and taxing rent-seeking.