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This is the first of three blog posts on recent trends in national inequality.
Inequality has featured prominently in the public debate in recent times. Media outlets highlight the apparent surge in the incomes of the richest, many books have been written on this issue, and numerous academic studies have attempted to assess the nature and magnitude of inequality over time. Most studies of inequality focus on the extent of inequality within a country; this makes sense since most policies operate at this level, too. Despite the attention this issue has received, it has been constrained by the quality of data on inequality. Household surveys collected by national authorities around the world are the most readily available source of data on inequality. However, compiling and harmonizing household surveys from different countries is extremely difficult as they are not always collected consistently or frequently enough. It is also well-known that household surveys often fail to capture the top tail of the distribution, as we will discuss in more detail in a future blog.
Also available in: Español | Français
Also available in: Español | Français
As we worked on a new World Bank flagship report that provides the latest and most accurate estimates on trends in global poverty and shared prosperity, it became apparent as to what we wanted for the title - Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2016: Taking on Inequality.
Because in our minds it became clear that inequality is becoming increasingly critical to meeting the World Bank’s goals of ending poverty and sharing prosperity. In fact, we find that tackling inequality will make or break the goal of ending poverty by 2030.
Egypt ranks as one of the world’s most equal countries judging by official estimates of income and consumption inequality. Estimates of inequality, like estimates of poverty, are derived from national household surveys that collect detailed income and/or consumption data for a sample of households, assumed to be representative of the country’s population.
Figure 1: Poverty and inequality in rural China
During the second-half of the last century countries were placed in one of two mutually exclusive camps: north or south, east or west, advanced or emerging, developed or developing. Simple though this categorization of countries had been, it reflected prevailing realities. In 1970, for instance, the global distribution of per capita income showed a clear divide between richer and poorer countries (See Figures 1 and 2). These between-country differences were equally applicable to other development conditions, notably health and education. However, as Hans Rosling emphasized during his last presentation at the World Bank, for the 21st century this binary distinction between countries is outdated. Boundaries between developed and developing regions are less clear today because of the extraordinary social and economic progress achieved in the large majority countries. Global economic activity is less geographically concentrated and increasingly dispersed across production networks that connect metropolitan areas around the world.
Achieving shared prosperity, one of the World Bank’s twin-goals, isn’t just a middle-income country’s preoccupation. It has a special resonance in Tanzania, a US$1,000 per capita economy in East Africa.
Tanzania has seen remarkable economic growth and strong resilience to external shocks over the last decade. GDP grew at an annualized rate of approximately 7 percent. Yet, this achievement was overshadowed by the slow response of poverty to the growing economy. The poverty rate has remained stagnant at around 34 percent until 2007 and started a slow decline of about one percentage point per year, attaining 28.2 percent in 2012. To date, around 12 million Tanzanians continue to live in poverty, unable to meet their basic consumption needs, and more than 70 percent of the population still lives on less than US$2 per day. Promoting the participation of the poor in the growth process and improving their living standards remains a daunting challenge.
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.
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.
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.
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.