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Principles of Economics 2e

15.5 Government Policies to Reduce Income Inequality

Principles of Economics 2e15.5 Government Policies to Reduce Income Inequality
  1. Preface
  2. 1 Welcome to Economics!
    1. Introduction
    2. 1.1 What Is Economics, and Why Is It Important?
    3. 1.2 Microeconomics and Macroeconomics
    4. 1.3 How Economists Use Theories and Models to Understand Economic Issues
    5. 1.4 How To Organize Economies: An Overview of Economic Systems
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  3. 2 Choice in a World of Scarcity
    1. Introduction to Choice in a World of Scarcity
    2. 2.1 How Individuals Make Choices Based on Their Budget Constraint
    3. 2.2 The Production Possibilities Frontier and Social Choices
    4. 2.3 Confronting Objections to the Economic Approach
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  4. 3 Demand and Supply
    1. Introduction to Demand and Supply
    2. 3.1 Demand, Supply, and Equilibrium in Markets for Goods and Services
    3. 3.2 Shifts in Demand and Supply for Goods and Services
    4. 3.3 Changes in Equilibrium Price and Quantity: The Four-Step Process
    5. 3.4 Price Ceilings and Price Floors
    6. 3.5 Demand, Supply, and Efficiency
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  5. 4 Labor and Financial Markets
    1. Introduction to Labor and Financial Markets
    2. 4.1 Demand and Supply at Work in Labor Markets
    3. 4.2 Demand and Supply in Financial Markets
    4. 4.3 The Market System as an Efficient Mechanism for Information
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  6. 5 Elasticity
    1. Introduction to Elasticity
    2. 5.1 Price Elasticity of Demand and Price Elasticity of Supply
    3. 5.2 Polar Cases of Elasticity and Constant Elasticity
    4. 5.3 Elasticity and Pricing
    5. 5.4 Elasticity in Areas Other Than Price
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  7. 6 Consumer Choices
    1. Introduction to Consumer Choices
    2. 6.1 Consumption Choices
    3. 6.2 How Changes in Income and Prices Affect Consumption Choices
    4. 6.3 Behavioral Economics: An Alternative Framework for Consumer Choice
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  8. 7 Production, Costs, and Industry Structure
    1. Introduction to Production, Costs, and Industry Structure
    2. 7.1 Explicit and Implicit Costs, and Accounting and Economic Profit
    3. 7.2 Production in the Short Run
    4. 7.3 Costs in the Short Run
    5. 7.4 Production in the Long Run
    6. 7.5 Costs in the Long Run
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  9. 8 Perfect Competition
    1. Introduction to Perfect Competition
    2. 8.1 Perfect Competition and Why It Matters
    3. 8.2 How Perfectly Competitive Firms Make Output Decisions
    4. 8.3 Entry and Exit Decisions in the Long Run
    5. 8.4 Efficiency in Perfectly Competitive Markets
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  10. 9 Monopoly
    1. Introduction to a Monopoly
    2. 9.1 How Monopolies Form: Barriers to Entry
    3. 9.2 How a Profit-Maximizing Monopoly Chooses Output and Price
    4. Key Terms
    5. Key Concepts and Summary
    6. Self-Check Questions
    7. Review Questions
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Problems
  11. 10 Monopolistic Competition and Oligopoly
    1. Introduction to Monopolistic Competition and Oligopoly
    2. 10.1 Monopolistic Competition
    3. 10.2 Oligopoly
    4. Key Terms
    5. Key Concepts and Summary
    6. Self-Check Questions
    7. Review Questions
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Problems
  12. 11 Monopoly and Antitrust Policy
    1. Introduction to Monopoly and Antitrust Policy
    2. 11.1 Corporate Mergers
    3. 11.2 Regulating Anticompetitive Behavior
    4. 11.3 Regulating Natural Monopolies
    5. 11.4 The Great Deregulation Experiment
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  13. 12 Environmental Protection and Negative Externalities
    1. Introduction to Environmental Protection and Negative Externalities
    2. 12.1 The Economics of Pollution
    3. 12.2 Command-and-Control Regulation
    4. 12.3 Market-Oriented Environmental Tools
    5. 12.4 The Benefits and Costs of U.S. Environmental Laws
    6. 12.5 International Environmental Issues
    7. 12.6 The Tradeoff between Economic Output and Environmental Protection
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Concepts and Summary
    10. Self-Check Questions
    11. Review Questions
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
    13. Problems
  14. 13 Positive Externalities and Public Goods
    1. Introduction to Positive Externalities and Public Goods
    2. 13.1 Why the Private Sector Underinvests in Innovation
    3. 13.2 How Governments Can Encourage Innovation
    4. 13.3 Public Goods
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  15. 14 Labor Markets and Income
    1. Introduction to Labor Markets and Income
    2. 14.1 The Theory of Labor Markets
    3. 14.2 Wages and Employment in an Imperfectly Competitive Labor Market
    4. 14.3 Market Power on the Supply Side of Labor Markets: Unions
    5. 14.4 Bilateral Monopoly
    6. 14.5 Employment Discrimination
    7. 14.6 Immigration
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Concepts and Summary
    10. Self-Check Questions
    11. Review Questions
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
  16. 15 Poverty and Economic Inequality
    1. Introduction to Poverty and Economic Inequality
    2. 15.1 Drawing the Poverty Line
    3. 15.2 The Poverty Trap
    4. 15.3 The Safety Net
    5. 15.4 Income Inequality: Measurement and Causes
    6. 15.5 Government Policies to Reduce Income Inequality
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  17. 16 Information, Risk, and Insurance
    1. Introduction to Information, Risk, and Insurance
    2. 16.1 The Problem of Imperfect Information and Asymmetric Information
    3. 16.2 Insurance and Imperfect Information
    4. Key Terms
    5. Key Concepts and Summary
    6. Self-Check Questions
    7. Review Questions
    8. Critical Thinking Questions
    9. Problems
  18. 17 Financial Markets
    1. Introduction to Financial Markets
    2. 17.1 How Businesses Raise Financial Capital
    3. 17.2 How Households Supply Financial Capital
    4. 17.3 How to Accumulate Personal Wealth
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  19. 18 Public Economy
    1. Introduction to Public Economy
    2. 18.1 Voter Participation and Costs of Elections
    3. 18.2 Special Interest Politics
    4. 18.3 Flaws in the Democratic System of Government
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  20. 19 The Macroeconomic Perspective
    1. Introduction to the Macroeconomic Perspective
    2. 19.1 Measuring the Size of the Economy: Gross Domestic Product
    3. 19.2 Adjusting Nominal Values to Real Values
    4. 19.3 Tracking Real GDP over Time
    5. 19.4 Comparing GDP among Countries
    6. 19.5 How Well GDP Measures the Well-Being of Society
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  21. 20 Economic Growth
    1. Introduction to Economic Growth
    2. 20.1 The Relatively Recent Arrival of Economic Growth
    3. 20.2 Labor Productivity and Economic Growth
    4. 20.3 Components of Economic Growth
    5. 20.4 Economic Convergence
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  22. 21 Unemployment
    1. Introduction to Unemployment
    2. 21.1 How Economists Define and Compute Unemployment Rate
    3. 21.2 Patterns of Unemployment
    4. 21.3 What Causes Changes in Unemployment over the Short Run
    5. 21.4 What Causes Changes in Unemployment over the Long Run
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  23. 22 Inflation
    1. Introduction to Inflation
    2. 22.1 Tracking Inflation
    3. 22.2 How to Measure Changes in the Cost of Living
    4. 22.3 How the U.S. and Other Countries Experience Inflation
    5. 22.4 The Confusion Over Inflation
    6. 22.5 Indexing and Its Limitations
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  24. 23 The International Trade and Capital Flows
    1. Introduction to the International Trade and Capital Flows
    2. 23.1 Measuring Trade Balances
    3. 23.2 Trade Balances in Historical and International Context
    4. 23.3 Trade Balances and Flows of Financial Capital
    5. 23.4 The National Saving and Investment Identity
    6. 23.5 The Pros and Cons of Trade Deficits and Surpluses
    7. 23.6 The Difference between Level of Trade and the Trade Balance
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Concepts and Summary
    10. Self-Check Questions
    11. Review Questions
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
    13. Problems
  25. 24 The Aggregate Demand/Aggregate Supply Model
    1. Introduction to the Aggregate Supply–Aggregate Demand Model
    2. 24.1 Macroeconomic Perspectives on Demand and Supply
    3. 24.2 Building a Model of Aggregate Demand and Aggregate Supply
    4. 24.3 Shifts in Aggregate Supply
    5. 24.4 Shifts in Aggregate Demand
    6. 24.5 How the AD/AS Model Incorporates Growth, Unemployment, and Inflation
    7. 24.6 Keynes’ Law and Say’s Law in the AD/AS Model
    8. Key Terms
    9. Key Concepts and Summary
    10. Self-Check Questions
    11. Review Questions
    12. Critical Thinking Questions
    13. Problems
  26. 25 The Keynesian Perspective
    1. Introduction to the Keynesian Perspective
    2. 25.1 Aggregate Demand in Keynesian Analysis
    3. 25.2 The Building Blocks of Keynesian Analysis
    4. 25.3 The Phillips Curve
    5. 25.4 The Keynesian Perspective on Market Forces
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
  27. 26 The Neoclassical Perspective
    1. Introduction to the Neoclassical Perspective
    2. 26.1 The Building Blocks of Neoclassical Analysis
    3. 26.2 The Policy Implications of the Neoclassical Perspective
    4. 26.3 Balancing Keynesian and Neoclassical Models
    5. Key Terms
    6. Key Concepts and Summary
    7. Self-Check Questions
    8. Review Questions
    9. Critical Thinking Questions
    10. Problems
  28. 27 Money and Banking
    1. Introduction to Money and Banking
    2. 27.1 Defining Money by Its Functions
    3. 27.2 Measuring Money: Currency, M1, and M2
    4. 27.3 The Role of Banks
    5. 27.4 How Banks Create Money
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  29. 28 Monetary Policy and Bank Regulation
    1. Introduction to Monetary Policy and Bank Regulation
    2. 28.1 The Federal Reserve Banking System and Central Banks
    3. 28.2 Bank Regulation
    4. 28.3 How a Central Bank Executes Monetary Policy
    5. 28.4 Monetary Policy and Economic Outcomes
    6. 28.5 Pitfalls for Monetary Policy
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  30. 29 Exchange Rates and International Capital Flows
    1. Introduction to Exchange Rates and International Capital Flows
    2. 29.1 How the Foreign Exchange Market Works
    3. 29.2 Demand and Supply Shifts in Foreign Exchange Markets
    4. 29.3 Macroeconomic Effects of Exchange Rates
    5. 29.4 Exchange Rate Policies
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  31. 30 Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy
    1. Introduction to Government Budgets and Fiscal Policy
    2. 30.1 Government Spending
    3. 30.2 Taxation
    4. 30.3 Federal Deficits and the National Debt
    5. 30.4 Using Fiscal Policy to Fight Recession, Unemployment, and Inflation
    6. 30.5 Automatic Stabilizers
    7. 30.6 Practical Problems with Discretionary Fiscal Policy
    8. 30.7 The Question of a Balanced Budget
    9. Key Terms
    10. Key Concepts and Summary
    11. Self-Check Questions
    12. Review Questions
    13. Critical Thinking Questions
    14. Problems
  32. 31 The Impacts of Government Borrowing
    1. Introduction to the Impacts of Government Borrowing
    2. 31.1 How Government Borrowing Affects Investment and the Trade Balance
    3. 31.2 Fiscal Policy and the Trade Balance
    4. 31.3 How Government Borrowing Affects Private Saving
    5. 31.4 Fiscal Policy, Investment, and Economic Growth
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  33. 32 Macroeconomic Policy Around the World
    1. Introduction to Macroeconomic Policy around the World
    2. 32.1 The Diversity of Countries and Economies across the World
    3. 32.2 Improving Countries’ Standards of Living
    4. 32.3 Causes of Unemployment around the World
    5. 32.4 Causes of Inflation in Various Countries and Regions
    6. 32.5 Balance of Trade Concerns
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  34. 33 International Trade
    1. Introduction to International Trade
    2. 33.1 Absolute and Comparative Advantage
    3. 33.2 What Happens When a Country Has an Absolute Advantage in All Goods
    4. 33.3 Intra-industry Trade between Similar Economies
    5. 33.4 The Benefits of Reducing Barriers to International Trade
    6. Key Terms
    7. Key Concepts and Summary
    8. Self-Check Questions
    9. Review Questions
    10. Critical Thinking Questions
    11. Problems
  35. 34 Globalization and Protectionism
    1. Introduction to Globalization and Protectionism
    2. 34.1 Protectionism: An Indirect Subsidy from Consumers to Producers
    3. 34.2 International Trade and Its Effects on Jobs, Wages, and Working Conditions
    4. 34.3 Arguments in Support of Restricting Imports
    5. 34.4 How Governments Enact Trade Policy: Globally, Regionally, and Nationally
    6. 34.5 The Tradeoffs of Trade Policy
    7. Key Terms
    8. Key Concepts and Summary
    9. Self-Check Questions
    10. Review Questions
    11. Critical Thinking Questions
    12. Problems
  36. A | The Use of Mathematics in Principles of Economics
  37. B | Indifference Curves
  38. C | Present Discounted Value
  39. D | The Expenditure-Output Model
  40. Answer Key
    1. Chapter 1
    2. Chapter 2
    3. Chapter 3
    4. Chapter 4
    5. Chapter 5
    6. Chapter 6
    7. Chapter 7
    8. Chapter 8
    9. Chapter 9
    10. Chapter 10
    11. Chapter 11
    12. Chapter 12
    13. Chapter 13
    14. Chapter 14
    15. Chapter 15
    16. Chapter 16
    17. Chapter 17
    18. Chapter 18
    19. Chapter 19
    20. Chapter 20
    21. Chapter 21
    22. Chapter 22
    23. Chapter 23
    24. Chapter 24
    25. Chapter 25
    26. Chapter 26
    27. Chapter 27
    28. Chapter 28
    29. Chapter 29
    30. Chapter 30
    31. Chapter 31
    32. Chapter 32
    33. Chapter 33
    34. Chapter 34
  41. References
  42. Index
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Explain the arguments for and against government intervention in a market economy
  • Identify beneficial ways to reduce the economic inequality in a society
  • Show the tradeoff between incentives and income equality

No society should expect or desire complete equality of income at a given point in time, for a number of reasons. First, most workers receive relatively low earnings in their first few jobs, higher earnings as they reach middle age, and then lower earnings after retirement. Thus, a society with people of varying ages will have a certain amount of income inequality. Second, people’s preferences and desires differ. Some are willing to work long hours to have income for large houses, fast cars and computers, luxury vacations, and the ability to support children and grandchildren.

These factors all imply that a snapshot of inequality in a given year does not provide an accurate picture of how people’s incomes rise and fall over time. Even if we expect some degree of economic inequality at any point in time, how much inequality should there be? There is also the difference between income and wealth, as the following Clear It Up feature explains.

Clear It Up

How do you measure wealth versus income inequality?

Income is a flow of money received, often measured on a monthly or an annual basis. Wealth is the sum of the value of all assets, including money in bank accounts, financial investments, a pension fund, and the value of a home. In calculating wealth, one must subtract all debts, such as debt owed on a home mortgage and on credit cards. A retired person, for example, may have relatively little income in a given year, other than a pension or Social Security. However, if that person has saved and invested over time, the person’s accumulated wealth can be quite substantial.

In the United States, the wealth distribution is more unequal than the income distribution, because differences in income can accumulate over time to make even larger differences in wealth. However, we can measure the degree of inequality in the wealth distribution with the same tools we use to measure the inequality in the income distribution, like quintile measurements. Once every three years the Federal Reserve Bank publishes the Survey of Consumer Finance which reports a collection of data on wealth.

Even if they cannot answer the question of how much inequality is too much, economists can still play an important role in spelling out policy options and tradeoffs. If a society decides to reduce the level of economic inequality, it has three main sets of tools: redistribution from those with high incomes to those with low incomes; trying to assure that a ladder of opportunity is widely available; and a tax on inheritance.

Redistribution

Redistribution means taking income from those with higher incomes and providing income to those with lower incomes. Earlier in this chapter, we considered some of the key government policies that provide support for the poor: the welfare program TANF, the earned income tax credit, SNAP, and Medicaid. If a reduction in inequality is desired, these programs could receive additional funding.

The federal income tax, which is a progressive tax system designed in such a way that the rich pay a higher percent in income taxes than the poor funds the programs. Data from household income tax returns in 2009 shows that the top 1% of households had an average income of $1,219,700 per year in pre-tax income and paid an average federal tax rate of 28.9%. The effective income tax, which is total taxes paid divided by total income (all sources of income such as wages, profits, interest, rental income, and government transfers such as veterans’ benefits), was much lower. The effective tax paid by that top 1% of householders paid was 20.4%, while the bottom two quintiles actually paid negative effective income taxes, because of provisions like the earned income tax credit. News stories occasionally report on a high-income person who has managed to pay very little in taxes, but while such individual cases exist, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the typical pattern is that people with higher incomes pay a higher average share of their income in federal income taxes.

Of course, the fact that some degree of redistribution occurs now through the federal income tax and government antipoverty programs does not settle the questions of how much redistribution is appropriate, and whether more redistribution should occur.

The Ladder of Opportunity

Economic inequality is perhaps most troubling when it is not the result of effort or talent, but instead is determined by the circumstances under which a child grows up. One child attends a well-run grade school and high school and heads on to college, while parents help out by supporting education and other interests, paying for college, a first car, and a first house, and offering work connections that lead to internships and jobs. Another child attends a poorly run grade school, barely makes it through a low-quality high school, does not go to college, and lacks family and peer support. These two children may be similar in their underlying talents and in the effort they put forth, but their economic outcomes are likely to be quite different.

Public policy can attempt to build a ladder of opportunities so that, even though all children will never come from identical families and attend identical schools, each child has a reasonable opportunity to attain an economic niche in society based on their interests, desires, talents, and efforts. Table 15.8 shows some of those initiatives.

Children College Level Adults
• Improved day care • Widespread loans and grants for those in financial need • Opportunities for retraining and acquiring new skills
• Enrichment programs for preschoolers • Public support for a range of institutions from two-year community colleges to large research universities • Prohibiting discrimination in job markets and housing on the basis of race, gender, age, and disability
• Improved public schools - -
• After school and community activities - -
• Internships and apprenticeships - -
Table 15.8 Public Policy Initiatives

Some have called the United States a land of opportunity. Although the general idea of a ladder of opportunity for all citizens continues to exert a powerful attraction, specifics are often quite controversial. Society can experiment with a wide variety of proposals for building a ladder of opportunity, especially for those who otherwise seem likely to start their lives in a disadvantaged position. The government needs to carry out such policy experiments in a spirit of open-mindedness, because some will succeed while others will not show positive results or will cost too much to enact on a widespread basis.

Inheritance Taxes

There is always a debate about inheritance taxes. It goes like this: Why should people who have worked hard all their lives and saved up a substantial nest egg not be able to give their money and possessions to their children and grandchildren? In particular, it would seem un-American if children were unable to inherit a family business or a family home. Alternatively, many Americans are far more comfortable with inequality resulting from high-income people who earned their money by starting innovative new companies than they are with inequality resulting from high-income people who have inherited money from rich parents.

The United States does have an estate tax—that is, a tax imposed on the value of an inheritance—which suggests a willingness to limit how much wealth one can pass on as an inheritance. However, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2015 the estate tax applied only to those leaving inheritances of more than $5.43 million and thus applies to only a tiny percentage of those with high levels of wealth.

The Tradeoff between Incentives and Income Equality

Government policies to reduce poverty or to encourage economic equality, if carried to extremes, can injure incentives for economic output. The poverty trap, for example, defines a situation where guaranteeing a certain level of income can eliminate or reduce the incentive to work. An extremely high degree of redistribution, with very high taxes on the rich, would be likely to discourage work and entrepreneurship. Thus, it is common to draw the tradeoff between economic output and equality, as Figure 15.10 (a) shows. In this formulation, if society wishes a high level of economic output, like point A, it must also accept a high degree of inequality. Conversely, if society wants a high level of equality, like point B, it must accept a lower level of economic output because of reduced incentives for production.

This view of the tradeoff between economic output and equality may be too pessimistic, and Figure 15.10 (b) presents an alternate vision. Here, the tradeoff between economic output and equality first slopes up, in the vicinity of choice C, suggesting that certain programs might increase both output and economic equality. For example, the policy of providing free public education has an element of redistribution, since the value of the public schooling received by children of low-income families is clearly higher than what low-income families pay in taxes. A well-educated population, however, is also an enormously powerful factor in providing the skilled workers of tomorrow and helping the economy to grow and expand. In this case, equality and economic growth may complement each other.

Moreover, policies to diminish inequality and soften the hardship of poverty may sustain political support for a market economy. After all, if society does not make some effort toward reducing inequality and poverty, the alternative might be that people would rebel against market forces. Citizens might seek economic security by demanding that their legislators pass laws forbidding employers from ever laying off workers or reducing wages, or laws that would impose price floors and price ceilings and shut off international trade. From this viewpoint, policies to reduce inequality may help economic output by building social support for allowing markets to operate.

The graph on the left shows an inverted downward slope with points A and B. The graph on the right shows a more severe inverted downward slope with points C, D, E, F.
Figure 15.10 The Tradeoff between Incentives and Economic Equality (a) Society faces a trade-off where any attempt to move toward greater equality, like moving from choice A to B, involves a reduction in economic output. (b) Situations can arise like point C, where it is possible both to increase equality and also to increase economic output, to a choice like D. It may also be possible to increase equality with little impact on economic output, like the movement from choice D to E. However, at some point, too aggressive a push for equality will tend to reduce economic output, as in the shift from E to F.

The tradeoff in Figure 15.10 (b) then flattens out in the area between points D and E, which reflects the pattern that a number of countries that provide similar levels of income to their citizens—the United States, Canada, European Union nations, Japan, and Australia—have different levels of inequality. The pattern suggests that countries in this range could choose a greater or a lesser degree of inequality without much impact on economic output. Only if these countries push for a much higher level of equality, like at point F, will they experience the diminished incentives that lead to lower levels of economic output. In this view, while a danger always exists that an agenda to reduce poverty or inequality can be poorly designed or pushed too far, it is also possible to discover and design policies that improve equality and do not injure incentives for economic output by very much—or even improve such incentives.

Bring It Home

Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy movement took on a life of its own over the last few months of 2011, bringing to light issues that many people faced on the lower end of the income distribution. The contents of this chapter indicate that there is a significant amount of income inequality in the United States. The question is: What should be done about it?

The 2008-2009 Great Recession caused unemployment to rise and incomes to fall. Many people attribute the recession to mismanagement of the financial system by bankers and financial managers—those in the 1% of the income distribution—but those in lower quintiles bore the greater burden of the recession through unemployment. This seemed to present the picture of inequality in a different light: the group that seemed responsible for the recession was not the group that seemed to bear the burden of the decline in output. A burden shared can bring a society closer together. A burden pushed off onto others can polarize it.

On one level, the problem with trying to reduce income inequality comes down to whether you still believe in the American Dream. If you believe that one day you will have your American Dream—a large income, large house, happy family, or whatever else you would like to have in life—then you do not necessarily want to prevent anyone else from living out their dream. You certainly would not want to run the risk that someone would want to take part of your dream away from you. Thus, there is some reluctance to engage in a redistributive policy to reduce inequality.

However, when those for whom the likelihood of living the American Dream is very small are considered, there are sound arguments in favor of trying to create greater balance. As the text indicated, a little more income equality, gained through long-term programs like increased education and job training, can increase overall economic output. Then everyone is made better off, and the 1% will not seem like such a small group any more.

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