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What is economic inequality?

Economic inequality is the unequal distribution of income and opportunity between different groups in society. It is a concern in almost all countries around the world and often people are trapped in poverty with little chance to climb up the social ladder. But, being born into poverty does not automatically mean you stay poor. Education, at all levels, enhancing skills, and training policies can be used alongside social assistance programs to help people out of poverty and to reduce inequality. Several countries are also now exploring whether a universal basic income could be the answer.

The global coronavirus pandemic is likely to further inequalities as travel restrictions, nationwide lockdowns, and the virus itself affect people within and across nations in widely varying ways.

For commentary on the effects of the virus see Covid-19: Pandemics and the labor market.

See National responses to Covid-19 for content looking at the effects of the pandemic on individual countries or cities.

  • Tax evasion, market adjustments, and income distribution Updated

    Market adjustments to tax evasion alter factor and product prices, which determine the true impacts and beneficiaries of tax evasion

    James AlmMatthias Kasper, February 2020
    How does tax evasion affect the distribution of income? In the standard analysis of tax evasion, all the benefits are assumed to accrue to tax evaders. However, tax evasion has other impacts that determine its true effects. As factors of production move from tax-compliant to tax-evading (informal) sectors, these market adjustments generate changes in relative prices of products and factors, thereby affecting what consumers pay and what workers earn. As a result, at least some of the gains from evasion are shifted to consumers of goods produced by tax evaders, and at least some of the returns to tax evaders are competed away via lower wages.
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  • Intergenerational return to human capital Updated

    Better educated parents invest more time and money in their children, who are more successful in the labor market

    Paul J. Devereux, November 2019
    Governments invest a lot of money in education, so it is important to understand the benefits of this spending. One essential aspect is that education can potentially make people better parents and thus improve the educational and employment outcomes of their children. Interventions that encourage the educational attainment of children from poorer families will reduce inequality in current and future generations. In addition to purely formal education, much less expensive interventions to improve parenting skills, such as parental involvement programs in schools, may also improve child development.
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  • Measuring income inequality

    Summary measures of inequality differ from one another and give different pictures of the evolution of economic inequality over time

    Ija Trapeznikova, July 2019
    Economists use various metrics for measuring income inequality. Here, the most commonly used measures—the Lorenz curve, the Gini coefficient, decile ratios, the Palma ratio, and the Theil index—are discussed in relation to their benefits and limitations. Equally important is the choice of what to measure: pre-tax and after-tax income, consumption, and wealth are useful indicators; and different sources of income such as wages, capital gains, taxes, and benefits can be examined. Understanding the dimensions of economic inequality is a key first step toward choosing the right policies to address it.
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  • Is unconditional basic income a viable alternative to other social welfare measures? Updated

    Countries give basic education and health care to everyone, and for good reasons—why not basic income?

    Ugo Colombino, March 2019
    Globalization and automation have brought about a tremendous increase in productivity, with enormous benefits, but also a dramatic reallocation of jobs, skills, and incomes, which might jeopardize the full realization of those benefits. Current social policies may not be adequate to successfully redistribute the gains from automation and globalization or to advance the reallocation of jobs and skills. Under certain circumstances, an unconditional basic income might be a better alternative for achieving these goals. It is simple, transparent, and has low administrative costs, though it may require higher taxes or a cut/reallocation of other public expenditures.
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  • Market competition and executive pay Updated

    Increased competition affects the pay incentives firms provide to their managers and may also affect overall pay structures

    Priscila Ferreira, February 2019
    Deregulation and managerial compensation are two important topics on the political and academic agenda. The former has been a significant policy recommendation in light of the negative effects associated with overly restrictive regulation on markets and the economy. The latter relates to the sharp increase in top executives’ pay and the nature of the link between pay and performance. To the extent that product-market competition can affect the incentive schemes offered by firms to their executives, the analysis of the effects of competition on the structure of compensation can be informative for policy purposes.
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  • Intergenerational income persistence Updated

    Measures of intergenerational persistence can be indicative of equality of opportunity, but the relationship is not clear-cut

    Jo Blanden, January 2019
    A strong association between incomes across generations—with children from poor families likely to be poor as adults—is frequently considered an indicator of insufficient equality of opportunity. Studies of such “intergenerational persistence,” or lack of intergenerational mobility, measure the strength of the relationship between parents’ socio-economic status and that of their children as adults. However, the association between equality of opportunity and common measures of intergenerational persistence is not as clear-cut as is often assumed. To aid interpretation researchers often compare measures across time and space but must recognize that reliable measurement requires overcoming important data and methodological difficulties.
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