Income inequality has been a hotly debated topic in Egypt since the 2011 revolution. However, researchers remain divided over the “true” level of inequality in this country. A blog posted on Vox in August argued that inequality in Egypt was underestimated and could be better represented by using house price data to estimate the top end of the income distribution. This blog is a response to that article and seeks to clarify issues relevant to the measurement of inequality in Egypt and elsewhere.
Income differences arise from many sources. While some kinds of inequality, caused by effort differences, might be associated with faster economic growth, other kinds, arising from unequal opportunities for investment, might be detrimental to economic progress. A new World Bank study by Francisco H. G. Ferreira, Christoph Lakner, Maria Ana Lugo, and Berk Özler uses two new metadata sets, consisting of 118 household surveys and 134 Demographic and Health Surveys, to revisit the question of whether inequality is associated with economic growth and, in particular, to examine whether inequality of opportunity -- driven by circumstances at birth -- has a negative effect on subsequent growth. The results are suggestive but not robust: while overall income inequality is generally negatively associated with growth in the household survey sample, the study finds no evidence that this is due to the component associated with unequal opportunities.
One of the puzzling aspects about Egypt is that income inequality measured through household surveys before the revolution was very low compared to the perceptions of inequality and injustice voiced by the people of Egypt during the revolution. A recent book on Egypt has tried to explain this apparent mismatch and found several leads that could explain why both the data and the people of Egypt may be right. Household data in Egypt are of good quality and measure income inequality well relative to other comparable surveys worldwide and the people of Egypt had good reasons to complain about social injustice as real incomes declined, prices increased and jobs and opportunities were scarce before the revolution.
Patterns of intergenerational income mobility in the United States reveal valuable lessons for economists and policy makers not just in this country, but also for the developing world, where successful efforts to promote shared prosperity and foster create better prospects for youth and children too often meet with frustration.
Raj Chetty, Professor of Economics at Harvard University lectured on this topic recently at the World Bank. For his talk, Chetty drew on recent research by him, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez. Chetty and team analyzed anonymous tax records on earnings of 40 million US children and their parents to gauge a child's chances of moving up the income distribution relative to his or her parents.
The January 2011 revolution in Egypt that overthrew 30 years of autocratic rule was in part due to a sense of deteriorating economic situation, injustice and growing inequality in the society. This was voiced by protesters during the revolution but also by intellectuals and the press after the fall of the old regime in an effort to explain the revolution. The World Values Surveys administered in Egypt in 2000 and 2008 confirm that the subjective aversion to inequality has intensified between the two years and for all social groups.
It is thus surprising that economic inequality in Egypt as measured by household surveys is low and has been declining during the past decade. In 2009, the most recent year when a large household income and expenditure survey was administered, the Gini coefficients for inequality in incomes and expenditures were 32.9 and 30.5 respectively , far lower than in surrounding countries, southern Europe or the United States. This finding led observers to dismiss these figures as “unreliable” and incapable of capturing the true economic inequality in Egypt.