Supplementary resources by topic. Income Distribution is one of 51 key economics concepts identified by the Council for Economic Education (CEE) for high school classes.

Income Distribution

On this page:

Definitions and Basics
In the News and Examples
A Little History: Primary Sources and References
Advanced Resources
Related Topics

Definitions and Basics

Distribution of Income, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

The distribution of income is central to one of the most enduring issues in political economics. On one extreme are those who argue that all incomes should be the same, or as nearly so as possible, and that a principal function of government should be to redistribute income from the haves to the have-nots. On the other extreme are those who argue that any income redistribution by government is bad….

A statistical summary of U.S. family income distribution since World War II shows the following:

  • 1. The U.S. family income distribution is highly unequal.
  • 2. The degree of income inequality is not much greater today than it was at the end of World War II.
  • 3. Family income inequality declined slowly from 1946 through 1969, increased slowly from 1970 through 1979, and has increased somewhat faster since then….


In the News and Examples

Thomas Sowell on Economic Facts and Fallacies. Podcast on EconTalk, February 25, 2008.

Thomas Sowell of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in his new book, Economic Facts and Fallacies. He discusses the misleading nature of measured income inequality, CEO pay, why nations grow or stay poor, the role of intellectuals and experts in designing public policy, and immigration….

Ugly Betty and the telenovela’s depiction of how to get rich: Global Soap: Poverty Bears a Woman’s Face, by Ibsen Martinez. Econlib, November 7, 2005.

Strikingly, the telenovela only rarely tells the tale of how a family business is founded and becomes prosperous. The family fortune is already there when the story begins. The soap opera limits itself to narrating how someone recoups a stolen inheritance. Invariably, that someone is a woman.

The focus on legacies underscores the central role of the rights of succession in nearly all of Latin America, where it is seen both in fiction and in real life as the way to get rich. Perhaps because of that, the question asked  in the most successful  telenovelas isn’t, “Who shot the woman?,” but, “Who is the woman’s real father?” Of equal importance: “Will she able to prove it?”…

Poverty in America, from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics

The United States produces more per capita than any other industrialized country, and in recent years governments at various levels have spent about $350 billion per year, or about 3.5 percent of gross domestic product, on programs serving low-income families. Despite this, measured poverty is more prevalent in the United States than in most of the rest of the industrialized world.

Why not just take all the money away from the wealthy? The Rich and the Poor: A Fairy Tale, by Jane Haldimand Marcet in John Hopkins’s Notions on Political Economy. 1831.

In the time of the Fairies, things went on no better than they do at present. John Hopkins, a poor labourer, who had a large family of children to support upon very scanty wages, applied to a Fairy for assistance. “Here am I half starving,” said he, “while my landlord rides about in a fine carriage; his children are pampered with the most dainty fare, and even his servants are bedizened with gaudy liveries: in a word, rich men, by their extravagance, deprive us poor men of bread. In order to gratify them with luxuries, we are debarred almost the necessaries of life.”…

A Little History: Primary Sources and References

Politics and Welfare: The Political Economy of the English Poor Laws by George Boyer on Econlib.

Economists and even some politicians are skeptical of the need for agricultural subsidies in America. Yet just this past year, Congress increased such subsidies dramatically. The persistence of agricultural subsidies often is attributed to the political power of farmers. When every state gets two senators, those from farm states get clout out of proportion to the population they represent.

The political power of farmers also helps explain a political economy puzzle of the early nineteenth century. Between 1780 and 1820, aid to the poor in England more than doubled. No other western European country experienced such a rapid increase in relief spending. As a result, poor relief expenditures as a share of national product were significantly higher in England than elsewhere in western Europe from 1795 to 1834. How and why this increase in spending occurred largely is a political story—a story of how farmers used the Poor Law to reduce their labor costs, by substituting relief benefits for wage payments. The increase in relief expenditures helped subsidize farmers at the expense of non-farming taxpayers. By the second decade of the nineteenth century relief spending was so high that it alarmed the British public…

The Economics of Welfare, by Arthur Pigou.

Advanced Resources

Humorous essay. 0-sum games like income redistribution are more exciting than economic fundamentals like the gains from trade.

Why is Economics So Boring?, by Donald Cox. Econlib, November 7, 2005.

Stan: Ollie, you know the worst part about being an economist? You meet someone at a cocktail party, you tell them you teach economics.

Ollie: …and they say “Oh, yeah, I took that in college. I hated it. It was sooo boring!”…

… getting the credit for Equation 14 is a zero sum game. And we care about zero sum games. There’s drama. There’s tension. There’s a loser for every winner. It makes for good TV, doesn’t it? But it’s not very common in reality. What common in reality is both sides are better off. The buyer and the seller of the car in the ad. That’s reality. No violence, no theft. Boring balloons. Boring happy people. Economics is boring….

Income distribution over time is mismeasured because of positional goods: Economic Growth and True Inequality (Part 1) and Irreducible Inequality (Part 2), John V.C. Nye. Econlib, January 28, 2002 and April 1, 2002.

Studies of income inequality focus on the widening gap between the have-a-littles and the have-a-lot-mores. Many are sure that whatever gains in progress may have come were disproportionately enjoyed by the wealthiest and most economically successful groups…. [from Part 1]

Our understanding of the rich and the poor has been skewed by what we choose to measure, and not realizing how different are the classes of goods that the rich and poor consume…. [from Part 1]

First, consider what are known as positional goods. As first elaborated by the economist Fred Hirsch, positional goods are those products and services which are inherently impossible to mass produce because their value is mostly, if not exclusively, a function of their relative desirability. Consider a simple ranking of the best restaurants. Assume for simplicity that the best restaurants are the most fashionable and most desirable eateries. However good the general run of restaurants are, the most favored top shops are still better, more desirable, and more exclusive than the others…. [from Part 2]

The Distribution of Wealth, by John Bates Clark

For practical men, and hence for students, supreme importance attaches to one economic problem—that of the distribution of wealth among different claimants. Is there a natural law according to which the income of society is divided into wages, interest and profits? If so, what is that law? This is the problem which demands solution….

Capital, Interest, and Rent: Essays in the Theory of Distribution, by Frank Fetter

Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, by Frank H. Knight

Related Topics

Roles of Government

Employment and Unemployment

Productive Resources