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Does More Income Mobility = Higher Social Welfare?

William Maloney's picture
 Curt Carnemark / World BankIncome mobility is usually considered a good thing. It implies higher social welfare as the ability of individuals to move up and down the income ladder mitigates the impacts of poor income distribution. But it is also true that when income jumps up and down unexpectedly, life becomes riskier and planning, difficult. This is why making a general link between the mobility we observe in the data and welfare is not straightforward.


A common approach used to show high mobility is a low correlation of present and past incomes is captured, for instance, by the Hart index (cov lnyt, lnyt-1). If we assume, as is often done, that an individual’s income is comprised of a transitory component (short-term blips up or down in a self-employed person’s income that we can smooth, or even measurement error), and a permanent component where each income shock is persistent (say, an income loss after an involuntary job change (an AR (1) process with autoregressive coefficient, ρ), then the Hart index can be broken into three parts.

Evening It Up: A New Oxfam Report on Inequality

Dean Mitchell Jolliffe's picture

In Even it Up: Time to End Extreme Inequality, Oxfam has delivered another powerful report making the case that tackling inequality is essential to create a more just world and to eliminate extreme poverty. I was asked to comment on this newly released report at an October 31 event held at the IMF, and was as impressed by the presentation as I was with the report.

Oxfam effectively uses research findings to advocate for policy changes to reduce global inequality. This statistics-laden report also wisely features compelling stories about real people, helping the reader to better understand how vast disparities in wealth adversely affect wellbeing. Oxfam has consistently argued to bring inequality to the fore of policy discussions, and not surprisingly, this report appears to have created a groundswell for their global #Even It Up campaign. While there were instances where I found myself questioning the quality of some references supporting a few statements and estimates, my overall reaction was that the ‘big picture’ claims of the report were well substantiated. In my comments, I suggest that if this report is a call to action, a useful next step for Oxfam or a partner in this work, will be to bring more clarity to what it means to eliminate extreme inequality. Establishing a goal or a measure to monitor progress will help to create better policies, and ensure better collaboration across governments and institutions.

Inequality at the very very very top: What does the Forbes Billionaires database tell us?

Joao Pedro Azevedo's picture

Thinking about inequality is back in fashion! In its November 2013 outlook, the World Economic Forum called rising inequality the second biggest risk for 2014-15. The 2014 English translation of French economist Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” became an instant bestseller among academics and practitioners in both developed and developing countries. Discussions of inequality are popping up everywhere, and even seem to be setting the tone of many round tables and presentations in the World Bank Group’s upcoming Annual Meetings.

Inequality of opportunity: the new motherhood and apple pie?

Adam Wagstaff's picture

On the face of it, questioning the usefulness of “inequality of opportunity” seems about as wrongheaded as questioning the merits of family vacations, Thanksgiving or dessert trolleys. What’s not to like about it? Well, as we argue in a recent World Bank working paper, the idea is not quite as useful as it might at first glance appear, and is in fact rather dangerous. But turned upside down, it might yet be useful.

A simple idea – let’s see some numbers

The idea behind inequality of opportunity is simple yet powerful. Not all inequality is bad. The bad bit of inequality (‘inequality of opportunity’) is the part that emerges because of factors over which we have no control (our 'circumstances'). By contrast inequality that emerges because of our different choices and efforts (holding constant our circumstances) is fine, and to be encouraged.

Were the poor left behind by the health MDGs?

Adam Wagstaff's picture

Thanks to Thomas Piketty, we’ve heard a lot this year about rising inequality. And with just over a year to go before the MDG ‘window’ closes, we’ve also heard a lot about the ‘post-2015 agenda’. In a paper with Leander Buisman that just came out in the World Bank Research Observer, we bring these two themes together and ask: “Were the poor left behind by the health MDGs?” Influenced perhaps by all the talk of rising income inequality, there are certainly plenty of pessimistic folks out there who think that health inequalities, too, are on the rise; that the better off are likely to have seen much faster improvements in MDG indicators than the poor.

Jason Furman speaks on inclusive growth in the US

Vamsee Kanchi's picture

Jason Furman, appointed by President Barack Obama as the Chairman of the Council of Economic Affairs, spoke yesterday at the World Bank about inclusive growth in the US. Furman said that average income for the bottom 90% grew strongly across all OECD countries starting in the 1950s, but has flattened in the US since the ‘70s. Furthermore, Furman added that capital income contributes more to overall inequality towards the upper end of the American income distribution.

Furman also pointed out that starting in 2000, labor share in US income started falling, largely because of globalization.

Services, Inequality, and the Dutch Disease

LTD Editors's picture

A new World Bank policy research working paper by Bill Battaile, Richard Chisik, and Harun Onder shows how Dutch disease effects may arise solely from a shift in demand following a natural resource discovery. The natural resource wealth increases the demand for non-tradable luxury services due to non-homothetic preferences. Labor that could be used to develop other non-resource tradable sectors is pulled into these service sectors. As a result, manufactures and other tradable goods are more likely to be imported, and learning and productivity improvements accrue to the foreign exporters.

Poverty, Shared Prosperity, and Trade-Offs

Kathleen Beegle's picture

In April 2013, the World Bank Group endorsed two ambitious goals:  (1) to end extreme poverty by 2030, and; (2) to promote “shared prosperity” by boosting the incomes of the poorest 40 percent of the population in every country. The introduction of the second goal marked a shift in the World Bank Group’s poverty reduction mission. Some might consider the goal #2 to constitute a refinement of a longer-standing -- albeit implicit -- emphasis on growth, widely considered a necessary condition for poverty reduction. 

Is goal #1, ending extreme poverty by 2030, paramount and is goal #2 subsidiary to that first objective? On the other hand, if these two goals are prioritized equally, what might this mean for the extreme poor?  What are the trade-offs between boosting the incomes of the bottom 40 percent in every developing country and ending extreme poverty globally?

Friday roundup: Malaria, Piketty and Ravallion, Oxfam Challenges IFIs on Inequality, and Global Flows in the Digital Age

LTD Editors's picture

'Our goal: Defeat malaria forever' is the title of a Path blog to commemorate World Malaria Day. Written by Dr. Carlos C. (Kent) Campbell and Bindiya Patel to commemorate World Malaria Day, it stresses that malaria control alone won't be enough to stop the disease.

Meanwhile, the economics world continues to be rocked by Piketty. His powerpoint on Capital in the 21st Century, presented recently at an IMF event where Martin Ravallion played the role of discussant, can be downloaded here. Ravallion provided his own take on historic inequality trends and explained why he thinks there is still hope that extreme poverty in the developing world will continue to fall, thanks in no small part to growth and other factors.

Growth, Inequality, and Social Welfare: Cross-Country Evidence

LTD Editors's picture

Social welfare functions that assign weights to individuals based on their income levels can be used to document the relative importance of growth and inequality changes for changes in social welfare. This method is applied in a new working paper by David Dollar, Tatjana Kleineberg, and Aart Kraay. They find that, in a large panel of industrial and developing countries over the past 40 years, most of the cross-country and over-time variation in changes in social welfare is due to changes in average incomes. In contrast, the changes in inequality observed during this period are on average much smaller than changes in average incomes, are uncorrelated with changes in average incomes, and have contributed relatively little to changes in social welfare.

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