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What's Behind the Inequality we Measure: An Investigation Using Latin American Data

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  • Miguel Székely
  • Marianne Hilgert
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    Abstract

    The use of income distribution indicators in the economics literature has increased considerably in recent years. This work relies on household surveys from 18 LAC countries to take a step back from the use of these indicators, and explore what`s behind the numbers, and what information they convey. We find: a) that the way countries rank according to inequality measured in a conventional way is to a large extent an illusion created by differences in characteristics of the data and on the particular ways in which the data is treated; b) Our ideas about the effect of inequality on economic growth are also driven by quality and coverage differences in household surveys and by the way in which the data is treated; c) Standard household surveys in LAC are unable to capture the incomes of the richest sectors of society; so, the inequality we are able to measure is most likely a gross underestimation. Our main conclusion is that there is an important story behind each number. This story influences our judgement about how unequal countries are and about the relation between inequality and other development indicators, but it is seldom told or known. Perhaps other statistics commonly used in economics also have their own interesting story, and it might be worth trying to find out what it is.

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    Bibliographic Info

    Paper provided by Inter-American Development Bank, Research Department in its series Research Department Publications with number 4188.

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    Date of creation: Dec 1999
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    Handle: RePEc:idb:wpaper:4188

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    1. Deininger, K & Squire, L, 1996. "Measuring Income Inequality : A New Data-Base," Papers 537, Harvard - Institute for International Development.
    2. Michael Hurd & F. Thomas Juster & James P. Smith, 2004. "Enhancing the Quality of Data on Income: Recent Developments in Survey Methodology," Labor and Demography 0412001, EconWPA.
    3. Anthony B. Atkinson & Andrea Brandolini, 2000. "Promise and Pitfalls in the Use of 'Secondary' Data-Sets: Income Inequality in OECD Countries," Temi di discussione (Economic working papers) 379, Bank of Italy, Economic Research and International Relations Area.
    4. Atkinson,Anthony Barnes & Micklewright,John, 1992. "Economic Transformation in Eastern Europe and the Distribution of Income," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521438827, October.
    5. Perotti, Roberto & Alesina, Alberto, 1996. "Income Distribution, Political Instability, and Investment," Scholarly Articles 4553018, Harvard University Department of Economics.
    6. Atkinson, A-B, 1996. "Bringing Income Distribution in from the Cold," Economics Papers 117, Economics Group, Nuffield College, University of Oxford.
    7. Atkinson,A.B. & Rainwater,L. & Smeeding,T., 1995. "Income Distribution in European Countries," Cambridge Working Papers in Economics 9535, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge.
    8. Ravallion, Martin & Shaohua Chen, 1996. "What can new survey data tell us about recent changes in distribution and poverty?," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1694, The World Bank.
    9. Shorrocks, A F, 1982. "Inequality Decomposition by Factor Components," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 50(1), pages 193-211, January.
    10. Cecilia Garcia-Penalosa & Eve Caroli & Philippe Aghion, 1999. "Inequality and Economic Growth: The Perspective of the New Growth Theories," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 37(4), pages 1615-1660, December.
    11. R. D. Plotnick & E. Smolensky & E. Evenhouse & S. Reilly, . "The Twentieth Century Record of Inequality and Poverty in the United States," Institute for Research on Poverty Discussion Papers 1166-98, University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.
    12. Perotti, Roberto, 1996. " Growth, Income Distribution, and Democracy: What the Data Say," Journal of Economic Growth, Springer, vol. 1(2), pages 149-87, June.
    13. Lanjouw, Peter & Ravallion, Martin, 1995. "Poverty and Household Size," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 105(433), pages 1415-34, November.
    14. Cowell, Frank A & Jenkins, Stephen P, 1995. "How Much Inequality Can We Explain? A Methodology and an Application to the United States," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 105(429), pages 421-30, March.
    15. Spilimbergo, Antonio & Londono, Juan Luis & Szekely, Miguel, 1999. "Income distribution, factor endowments, and trade openness," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 59(1), pages 77-101, June.
    16. Lancaster, Geoffrey & Ray, Ranjan & Valenzuela, Maria Rebecca, 1999. "A Cross-Country Study of Equivalence Scales and Expenditure Inequality on Unit Record Household Budget Data," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 45(4), pages 455-82, December.
    17. Alesina, Alberto & Perotti, Roberto, 1996. "Income distribution, political instability, and investment," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 40(6), pages 1203-1228, June.
    18. Ravallion, Martin, 1998. "Does aggregation hide the harmful effects of inequality on growth?," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 61(1), pages 73-77, October.
    19. Cowell, Frank A & Victoria-Feser, Maria-Pia, 1996. "Robustness Properties of Inequality Measures," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 64(1), pages 77-101, January.
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    Citations

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    Cited by:
    1. Miguel Székely & Marianne Hilgert, 1999. "The 1990s in Latin America: Another Decade of Persistent Inequality," Research Department Publications 4190, Inter-American Development Bank, Research Department.
    2. Branko Milanovic, 2002. "True World Income Distribution, 1988 and 1993: First Calculation Based on Household Surveys Alone," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 112(476), pages 51-92, January.
    3. Leonardo Gasparini, 2003. "Income Inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean: Evidence from Household Surveys," CEDLAS, Working Papers 0002, CEDLAS, Universidad Nacional de La Plata.
    4. Timothy M. Smeeding, 2002. "Globalization, Inequality, and the Rich Countries of the G-20: Evidence from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS)," Center for Policy Research Working Papers 48, Center for Policy Research, Maxwell School, Syracuse University.
    5. Pinelopi K. Goldberg & Nina Pavcnik, 2004. "Trade, Inequality, and Poverty: What Do We Know? Evidence from Recent Trade Liberalization Episodes in Developing Countries," NBER Working Papers 10593, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. Christopher Cramer, 2003. "Does inequality cause conflict?," Journal of International Development, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 15(4), pages 397-412.
    7. Guénard, Charlotte & Mesplé-Somps, Sandrine, 2004. "Mesurer les inégalités : que captent réellement les enquêtes ? Analyse de deux enquêtes ivoirienne et malgache," Economics Papers from University Paris Dauphine 123456789/4459, Paris Dauphine University.
    8. Miguel Székely & Marianne Hilgert, 1999. "Los años 90 en América Latina: otra década de pertinaz desigualdad," Research Department Publications 4191, Inter-American Development Bank, Research Department.
    9. Morley, Samuel A., 2001. "Distribution and growth in Latin America in an era of structural reform," TMD discussion papers 66, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
    10. Laura de Dominicis & Henri L.F. de Groot & Raymond J.G.M. Florax, 2006. "Growth and Inequality: A Meta-Analysis," Tinbergen Institute Discussion Papers 06-064/3, Tinbergen Institute.
    11. Leonardo Gasparini & Matías Horenstein & Sergio Olivieri, 2006. "Economic Polarisation in Latin America and the Caribbean: What do Household Surveys Tell Us?," CEDLAS, Working Papers 0038, CEDLAS, Universidad Nacional de La Plata.

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