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.
In a new World Bank policy research working paper, Branko Milanovic and I assess the impact of overall inequality, as well as inequality among the poor and among the rich, on the growth rates along various percentiles of the income distribution. The analysis uses micro-census data from U.S. states covering the period from 1960 to 2010. The paper finds evidence that high levels of inequality reduce the income growth of the poor and, if anything, help the growth of the rich.
There is a lot of public discussion about Thomas Piketty’s book on capital and its implications for inequality. His work strikes a chord with many of us because it outlines a future where basically your own or inherited wealth matters and where wage income and apparently your human capital does not matter that much for your income generation. So how do we escape such a one-sided and unequal world? Well, maybe one way is to understand better the interaction between growth, changes in the income distribution, and their implications for shared prosperity.
Last week the President of the World Bank Group launched at the Spring Meetings the report "Prosperity for All." One of the interesting areas the note reported on was the interrelationship between growth, movements in the income distribution and poverty reduction.
There are various ways of showing the impact of growth on people’s income and its interrelationship with a country’s income distribution. In comparing distributions over time, one of the more useful graphs is a Pen’s Parade (figure 1a), named after another Dutch economist as so many inequality or poverty measures are (other examples are the Theil index and Thorbecke for the Foster-Greer-Thorbecke Poverty Measure).
As a student in 2003, I had an opportunity to interview a social activist about food security in India. Among other things, she blamed globalization for the slow demise of the local food industry. She went a step further and labeled globalization as depriving people (small scale farmers and workers) of their livelihoods. Her solution for India to become a leader in the food industry was by staying local, small, and forming cooperatives rather than fostering large agribusiness. This was quite a contrasting view at a time when India was starting to see benefits from its economic liberalization. In retrospect, I was interviewing someone who was ahead of a trend where activists were increasingly wary about the downsides of globalization and its impact on development.
Since then, globalization has sped up and contentious debates over who ultimately benefits have grown. And just as finance ministers from various countries were converging on Washington to discuss vital issues like extreme poverty, global macroeconomic prospects, jobs creation, and inclusive growth, revisiting globalization seemed germane to tackling development challenges.
More than ten years ago Ronald Inglehart, of the University of Michigan, and his team at the World Values Survey asked thousands of respondents around the world to rate their views, on a scale of 1 to 10, on whether they felt inequality in their countries should go up or down. The way they phrased the question was that 1 corresponded to full agreement with the statement that “incomes should be made more equal”, whereas 10 stood for “we need larger income differences as incentives for individual effort”.
Poverty in old age is prevalent in a large number of Latin American countries. Universal minimum pensions would be an effective and administratively simple way to substantially reduce poverty among the elder generation.
|Photo: © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank|