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
Is rising inequality necessarily bad? at Khan Academy
Anne Bradley, Income Inequality or Income Mobility: For what Should We Fight? at Learn Liberty
The Numbers Game: The Paradox of Household Income, with Russ Roberts, at the Hoover Institution’s PolicyEd.
The Numbers Game: How’s the Middle Class Doing? with Russ Roberts, at the Hoover Institution’s PolicyEd.
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. Essay 1 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.”…
Dwight Lee, Should the Government Reduce Inequality in Life Spans? Econlib, January, 2009.
When we seriously consider an attempt to use government power to reduce the gender inequality in life expectancy, the problems that we have always faced when government uses its power to reduce income inequality suddenly become crystal clear.
Angus Deaton on Inequality, Trade, and the Robin Hood Principle. EconTalk podcast episode, October 2016.
Nobel Laureate in Economics Angus Deaton of Princeton University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the economics of trade and aid. Deaton wonders if economists should re-think the widely-held view that redistribution from rich nations to poor nations makes the world a better place. The conversation focuses on the challenges facing poor Americans including the rising mortality rate for white Americans ages 45-54.
Alice Temnick, Does More Money = Less Poverty? EconTalk podcast Extra, November 2019.
Thomas Piketty on Inequality and Capital in the 21st Century. EconTalk podcast episode, September 2014.
Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century talks to Econtalk host Russ Roberts about the book. The conversation covers some of the key empirical findings of the book along with a discussion of their significance.
A Little History: Primary Sources and References
“Politics and Welfare: The Political Economy of the English Poor Laws,” by George Boyer on Econlib, December 2, 2002.
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…
Gabriel Zucman on Inequality, Growth, and Distributional National Accounts. EconTalk podcast episode, July 2012.
Gabriel Zucman of the University of California, Berkeley talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his research on inequality and the distribution of income in the United States over the last 35 years. Zucman finds that there has been no change in income for the bottom half of the income distribution over this time period with large gains going to the top 1%. The conversation explores the robustness of this result to various assumptions and possible explanations for the findings.
James Galbraith on Inequality. EconTalk podcast episode, April 2013.
James Galbraith of the University of Texas and author of Inequality and Instability talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about inequality. Galbraith argues that much of the mainstream analysis of inequality in the economics literature is flawed. Galbraith looks at a variety of different measures and ways of analyzing income data. In the podcast he focuses on how much of measured inequality is due to changes in specific counties or industries. Other topics discussed include the state of economics in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the importance of the government safety net and other social legislation.
The Economics of Welfare, by Arthur Pigou.
Simon Kuznets biography in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
Income Inequality. Archive of EconTalk podcast episodes on Income Inequality.
Income distribution over time is mismeasured because of positional goods: “Economic Growth and True Inequality (Part 1),” and “Irreducible Inequality (Part 2),”, by 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
Tyler Cowen, American Stasis, at Marginal Revolution University.