Inequality and real income growth for middle and low-income households across rich countries in recent decades

Social Macroeconomics working paper
Brian Nolan
Stefan Thewisseng
Abstract

This paper places what has happened to income inequality in rich countries over recent decades alongside trends in median and low incomes in real terms, taken as incomplete but valuable indicators of the evolution of living standards for ‘ordinary working families’ and the poor.

The findings demonstrate first just how varied country experiences have been, with some much more successful than others in generating rising real incomes around the middle and towards the bottom of the distribution. This variation is seen to be only modestly related to the extent to which income inequality rose, which itself is more varied across the rich countries than is often appreciated.

The extent to which economic growth is transmitted to the middle and lower parts of the distribution is seen to depend on a range of factors of which inequality is only one. Sources of real income growth around the middle have also varied across countries, though transfers are consistently key towards the bottom. The diversity of rich country experiences should serve as an important corrective to a now-common ‘grand narrative’ about inequality and stagnation based on the experience of US.