What is the relationship between the degree of inequality in a country and the rate of economic growth? The traditional answer is that there is a trade off between the two. Increasing the rewards to those who are more productive or who invest encourages a growth in productivity and capital investment, which, in turn, leads to faster economic growth. Redistribution from the rich to the poor, by contrast, is argued to reduce incentives by reducing the rewards from harder work, education, training and investment. Risk taking, it is claimed, is discouraged.
Recent evidence from the OECD and the IMF, however, suggests that when income inequality rises, economic growth falls. Inequality has grown massively in many countries, with average incomes at the top of the distribution seeing particular gains, while many at the bottom have experienced actual declines in real incomes or, at best, little or no growth. This growth in inequality can be seen in a rise in countries’ Gini coefficients. The OECD average Gini coefficient rose from 0.29 in the mid-1980s to 0.32 in 2011/12. This, claims the OECD, has led to a loss in economic growth of around 0.35 percentage points per year.
But why should a rise in inequality lead to lower economic growth? According to the OECD, the main reason is that inequality reduces the development of skills of the lower income groups and reduces social mobility.
By hindering human capital accumulation, income inequality undermines education opportunities for disadvantaged individuals, lowering social mobility and hampering skills development.
The lower educational attainment applies both to the length and quality of education: people from poorer backgrounds on average leave school or college earlier and with lower qualifications.
But if greater inequality generally results in lower economic growth, will a redistribution from rich to poor necessarily result in faster economic growth? According to the OECD:
Anti-poverty programmes will not be enough. Not only cash transfers but also increasing access to public services, such as high-quality education, training and healthcare, constitute long-term social investment to create greater equality of opportunities in the long run.
Thus redistribution policies need to be well designed and implemented and focus on raising incomes of the poor through increased opportunities to increase their productivity. Simple transfers from rich to poor via the tax and benefits system may, in fact, undermine economic growth. According to the IMF:
That equality seems to drive higher and more sustainable growth does not in itself support efforts to redistribute. In particular, inequality may impede growth at least in part because it calls forth efforts to redistribute that themselves undercut growth. In such a situation, even if inequality is bad for growth, taxes and transfers may be precisely the wrong remedy.
Inequality ‘significantly’ curbs economic growth – OECD BBC News (9/12/14)
Is inequality the enemy of growth? BBC News, Robert Peston (6/10/14)
Income inequality damages growth, OECD warns Financial Times, Chris Giles (8/10/14)
OECD finds increasing inequality lowers growth Deutsche Welle, Jasper Sky (10/12/14)
Revealed: how the wealth gap holds back economic growth The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/12/14)
Inequality Seriously Damages Growth, IMF Seminar Hears IMF Survey Magazine (12/4/14)
Warning! Inequality May Be Hazardous to Your Growth iMFdirect, Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry (8/4/11)
Reports and papers
FOCUS on Inequality and Growth OECD, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs (December 2014)
Trends in Income Inequality and its Impact on Economic Growth OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, Federico Cingano (9/12/14)
An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries: Main Findings OCED (2011)
Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth IMF Staff Discussion Note, Jonathan D. Ostry, Andrew Berg, and Charalambos G. Tsangarides (February 2014)
Measure to Measure Finance and Development, IMF, Jonathan D. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg (Vol. 51, No. 3, September 2014)