IZA World of Labor
key topic

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.

  • Inequality and informality in transition and emerging countries

    Higher inequality decreases capital accumulation and increases informality, which, in turn, raises the income of the poor

    Roberto Dell'Anno, December 2016
    Higher inequality reduces capital accumulation and increases the informal economy, which creates additional employment opportunities for low-skilled and deprived people. Despite this positive feedback, informality raises problems for public finances and biases official statistics, reducing the effectiveness of redistributive policies. Policymakers should consider the links between inequality and informality because badly designed informality-reducing policies may increase inequality. However, convincing empirical evidence is still lacking and is usually limited to correlations rather than causal effects.
  • What can be expected from productive inclusion programs?

    Grants and training programs are great complements to social assistance to help people out of poverty

    Jamele Rigolini, October 2016
    Productive inclusion programs provide an integrated package of services, such as grants and training, to promote self-employment and wage employment among the poor. They show promising long-term impacts, and are often proposed as a way to graduate the poor out of social assistance. Nevertheless, neither productive inclusion nor social assistance will be able to solve the broader poverty challenge independently. Rather, the future is in integrating productive inclusion into the existing social assistance system, though this poses several design, coordination, and implementation challenges.
  • Can higher education reduce inequality in developing countries?

    Expanding higher education might solve rising youth unemployment and widening inequality in Africa

    Abebe Shimeles, July 2016
    Developing countries often face two well-known structural problems: high youth unemployment and high inequality. In recent decades, policymakers have increased the share of government spending on education in developing countries to address both of these issues. The empirical literature offers mixed results on which type of education is most suitable to improve gainful employment and reduce inequality: is it primary, secondary, or tertiary education? Investigating recent literature on the returns to education in selected developing countries in Africa can help to answer this question.
  • Income inequality and social origins

    Promoting intergenerational mobility can make societies more egalitarian

    Income inequality has been rising in many countries. Is this bad? One way to decide is to look at the change in incomes across generations (intergenerational mobility) and, more generally, at the extent to which income differences among individuals are traceable to their social origins. Inequalities that reflect factors largely out of one’s control—such as local schools and communities—require attention in order to reduce income inequality. Evidence shows a negative association between income inequality and intergenerational mobility. The debate on whether community effects exert additional effects is still open.
  • Do skills matter for wage inequality?

    Policies to tackle wage inequality should focus on skills alongside reform of labor market institutions

    Stijn Broecke, February 2016
    Policymakers in many OECD countries are increasingly concerned about high and rising inequality. Much of the evidence (as far back as Adam Smith’s ) points to the importance of skills in tackling wage inequality. Yet a recent strand of the research argues that (cognitive) skills explain little of the cross-country differences in wage inequality. Does this challenge the received wisdom on the relationship between skills and wage inequality? No, because this recent research fails to account for the fact that the price of skill (and thus wage inequality) is determined to a large extent by the match of skill supply and demand.
  • The role of preschool in reducing inequality

    Preschool improves child outcomes, especially for disadvantaged children

    Jane Waldfogel, December 2015
    Children from disadvantaged families have lower levels of school readiness when they enter school than do children from more advantaged families. Many countries have tried to reduce this inequality through publicly provided preschool. Evidence on the potential of these programs to reduce inequality in child development is now quite strong. Long-term studies of large publicly funded programs in Europe and Latin America, and newer studies on state and local prekindergarten programs implemented more recently in the US, find that the programs do improve outcomes for young children, particularly for those from disadvantaged families.
show more