Skip to content

Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility

June 18, 2013

The summer issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives will feature a collection of articles on inequality and the top 1%, some of which are now being circulated by the authors.

The paper by Tony Atkinson and his coauthors, “The top 1 percent in international and historical perspective,” is available in this post, and “The Pay of Corporate Executives and Financial Professionals as Evidence of Rents in Top 1 Percent Incomes,” by Josh Bivens and Lawerence Mishel, is available on the Economic Policy Institute website.

Greg Mankiw has also posted a copy of his paper, “Defending the One Percent“, on his blog.

My contribution to the collection is based on the notion that the inequality literature has paid little attention to the intergenerational consequences of increasing top income shares, and it can be read as a counterpoint to Mankiw’s piece, or at least to his claim that inequality of opportunity is not a reason to worry about the top 1%.

Here is the final draft: Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility. But if you just want a quick read, an excerpt from the conclusion follows. Either way, feedback is—as always—welcomed.

[NOTE added December 10, 2013: the published version of this paper is available from the American Economics Association website for the Summer 2013 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, as is the table of contents for the entire issue.]

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Relatively less upward mobility of the least advantaged is one reason why intergenerational mobility is lower in the United States than in other countries to which Americans are often compared. But it is not the only reason. Intergenerational mobility is also lower because children of top-earning parents are more likely to become top earners in their turn. An era of rising inequality is more likely to heighten these differences than to diminish them.

Inequality lowers mobility because it shapes opportunity. It heightens the income consequences of innate differences between individuals; it also changes opportunities, incentives, and institutions that form, develop, and transmit characteristics and skills valued in the labor market; and it shifts the balance of power so that some groups are in a position to structure policies or otherwise support their children’s achievement independent of talent.

Thus, those who are concerned about equality of opportunity should also care about inequality of outcomes.

The inequality literature has paid little attention to the intergenerational consequences of increasing top income shares that it has so carefully documented. Freeland (2012) graphically documents the degree to which the top 1 percent, by virtue of the magnitude of their income, are divorced from the rest of the population in their work arrangements, consumption behavior, and beliefs.

I have argued here that the top 1 percent are also different in the way advantages are passed on to the next generation, which certainly involves much higher-quality schooling and other investments of human capital from the early years onward, but may well also involve nepotism in the allocation of jobs.

This dynamic at the top, and its underlying drivers, are likely very different from the configuration of forces determining intergenerational mobility for those in the lower half of the income distribution. Even so some countries are likely to combine a good deal of intergenerational mobility with higher top shares because the balance in the lower parts of the income distribution between labor market inequalities, the health and vitality of the family as an institution, and broad, high-quality, and accessible public investments in human capital will not be (much) skewed by top earners.

A similar dynamic seems unlikely to unfold in the United States. While the imagined prospect of upward mobility for those in the lower part of the income distribution shares little in common with the generational dynamics of the top 1 percent, the latter may well continue to be an important touchstone for those in, say, the top fifth of the US income distribution.

After all, this group too has experienced significant growth in its relative standing, which partly reflects an increasing return to the graduate and other higher degrees for which they exerted considerable effort, but is also linked to a background of nurturing families and select colleges. This group has both the resources and incentives to turn more intensely to promoting the capacities of their children.

With effort and a bit of luck, it is not unreasonable for them to believe they may yet cross the threshold into the top 1 percent, and they can certainly imagine that their children stand just as good a chance, if not better. For them the “American Dream” lives on, and as a result they are likely not predisposed, with their considerable political and cultural influence, to support the recasting of American public policy to meet its most pressing need, the upward mobility of those at the bottom.

 

About these ads
26 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Gutek and commented:
    It’s nice to see, I think, a lot of the political and public attention paid to income inequality and distribution in media dispatches now getting the academic treatment.

  2. derrida derider permalink

    “[the top quintile] are likely not predisposed, with their considerable political and cultural influence, to support the recasting of American public policy to meet its most pressing need, the upward mobility of those at the bottom”

    But surely more upward mobility of those in the bottom quintile must, arithmetically, mean more downward mobility in the quintiles above them. Which would not be such a political economy problem except that the gap between those at the bottom and those higher up is so large. Not only does an lopsided income distribution lead to less movement within it through the effect of the real Golden Rule (“he who has the gold makes the rules” – the point of your paper), it also makes fixing any immobility politically intractable by generating fear of falling in the middle quintiles.

    Yes, inequality of outcomes leads to inequality of opportunity, but we shouldn’t let people evade the fact that inequality of outcomes is independently welfare-reducing in any case and is self-perpetuating through several mechanisms. In the US it took a Great Depression and World War 2 to shift it, for example.

  3. Ian Maitland permalink

    NOT the 1%.

    You say that Freeland (2012) graphically documents the degree to which the top 1 percent, by virtue of the magnitude of their income, are divorced from the rest of the population.

    But the blurb you cite to says that Freeland finds that “the greatest income gap is NOT between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, but WITHIN the wealthiest 1 percent of our nation–as the merely wealthy are left behind by the rapidly expanding fortunes of the new global super-rich. Forget the 1 percent; Plutocrats proves that it is the wealthiest 0.1 percent who are outpacing the rest of us at break-neck speed” (my emphasis).

  4. DAHR permalink

    Not sure with all the challenges in the world I would agree that our most pressing need is upward mobility of those at the bottom. If that is your asumption it must bias your conclusions.

  5. J. Matsubara permalink

    In your paper you mention people getting assistance filling out FAFSA and how this boosts the chance of attending college. The more selective US schools require the CSS PROFILE as well. It is much more time consuming, lengthy, and difficult than FAFSA. (See for example http://www.tuitioncoach.com/collegecost/pdf/cssProfile.pdf)
    Also, the US college application process is much more complicated than the Canadian one. I have kids in both systems. Canadian schools are a breeze in comparison.
    Just mentioning that this might make a difference, too.

  6. Hugo Hormazabal permalink

    I believe we should not disregard labor laws as a significant reason that is holding an impediment to advancement of social mobility. With more labor laws that are limiting the start-up of businesses and more permits that need to be acquired to already operating businesses are major factors to be considered. Not to mention the reality that there are less credit loans given to low income entrepreneurs, and our rate of inflation that is affecting the value of the dollar are other phenomenons that might explain the income displacement that are holding low income people in the bottom.

  7. Miles,
    I am late in coming to this, but I am curious about the relationship (if any) between wealth and generational inequality. My impression is that most of the analysis is of the income dimension, but you or others must have looked at wealth as well: what is the relationship?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Links for 06-19-2013 | The Penn Ave Post
  2. Economist’s View: Links for 06-19-2013 | Fifth Estate
  3. Inequality and Inter-generational Mobility - The Progressive Policy Portal | The Progressive Policy Portal
  4. Economics For Public Policy: Miles Corak: “Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility”: Why Equality of Opportunity is Necessary to Reduce Poverty | frsfreestate
  5. Inequality, wealth tax and bankers: Top 5 blogs you might have missed this week | British Politics and Policy at LSE
  6. Paul Krugman: Greg Mankiw Forgets ‘We Are A Much More Unequal Society Now’Breaking News and Opinion | Jobs. Justice. Dreams. - The Truth w. Robert Patillo
  7. Paul Krugman: Greg Mankiw Forgets ‘We Are A Much More Unequal Society Now’ | Go to News!
  8. Kemetix | Paul Krugman: Greg Mankiw Forgets ‘We Are A Much More Unequal Society Now’
  9. Paul Krugman: Greg Mankiw Forgets ‘We Are A Much More Unequal Society Now’ | The Opinion
  10. Income Inequality, Equality of Opportunity, and Intergenerational Mobility | MemePosts
  11. Krugman Slams Harvard Economist’s Defense Of The 1 Percent
  12. Krugman’s blog, 6/23/13 | Marion in Savannah
  13. Brooks, Cohen and Krugman | Marion in Savannah
  14. Manufacturing Meritocracy | Medianism.Org
  15. Life intervening | lil stevie's econ blog
  16. The American dream is alive and well — in Canada | iPolitics
  17. Why are Young People Unhappy? | Benjamin Studebaker
  18. Growing inequality powers the rise of New America | Fabius Maximus
  19. What We Know About Income Mobility Depends on How We Define It - Jonathan Hopkin - Harvard Business Review

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,661 other followers

%d bloggers like this: