Publication Date

10-20-2008

Abstract

Economic theory alone does not establish any basis for preferring a more or less equal distribution of income. Nonetheless, a common aim of policy is promoting equality of opportunity. An extremely unequal distribution of income may be considered an indication of a lack of equal opportunity. Arguments for a more equal distribution of income than that which would result from market forces are based on a number of propositions. One is a common assumption made in economic analysis known as diminishing marginal utility of income. This is the notion that each additional dollar of income yields less utility, or satisfaction. If the assumption of diminishing marginal utility of income is accepted, then, in theory, it should be possible to increase the overall well-being (utility) of society by taking some from those with high incomes and giving it to those with low incomes. A second, noneconomic, justification for policies designed to make the income distribution more equal is concern that society prevent its members from falling below some minimum standard of living.

Existing measures of income fall well short of an ideal that would accurately indicate how well off individuals or households are. Not all kinds of income are counted. Taking the existing measures at face value, however, several observations can be made. First, the distribution of income in the United States has become increasingly unequal since the late 1960s. Second, the U.S. income distribution is the most unequal of all major industrialized countries. Some of the greater income equality found in other major industrialized countries may be due to the fact that government transfers are more directly targeted at lower income households.

The distribution of earnings is more unequal than is the distribution of household income. Of particular interest is that the gap in earnings between highly educated or skilled workers and less skilled workers has grown substantially. Explanations focusing on world trade and national demographics have been suggested, but the one most widely accepted is that technological advances in recent years have increased the demand for more highly skilled labor relative to its supply. Policies that boost the supply of skilled workers would thus seem likely to narrow that gap and act as an equalizing influence on the income distribution. But, the large gap in pay between skilled and unskilled workers that has developed would itself seem to be a substantial incentive for prospective and current workers to expand their education and training.

This report will be updated as developments warrant.

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Suggested Citation
Cashell, B. W. (2008). Inequality in the distribution of income: Trends and international comparisons (RL32639) [Electronic version]. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/key_workplace/553/

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