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Three Centuries Of Inequality In Britain And America


  • Peter Lindert
  • Wen Hai
  • Shunli Yao

    (Department of Economics, University of California Davis)


Income and wealth inequality rose over the first 150 years of U.S. history. They may have risen at times in Britain before 1875. The first half of this century equalized pre-fisc incomes more in Britain than in America. From the 1970s to the 1990s inequality rose in both countries, reversing some of the previous equalization. Government redistribution explains part but not all of the reversals in inequality trends. Factor-market forces and economic growth would have produced a similar chronology of rises and falls in income inequality even without shifts in the progressivity of redistribution through government. For economies starting from highly unequal property ownership, the development process lowers inequality. History suggests, however, that this may happen only once. Redistribution toward the poor tends to happen least in those times and polities where it would seem most justified by the usual goals of welfare policy.

Suggested Citation

  • Peter Lindert & Wen Hai & Shunli Yao, 2003. "Three Centuries Of Inequality In Britain And America," Working Papers 979, University of California, Davis, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:cda:wpaper:97-9

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Jeffrey G. Williamson, 1998. "Globalization, Labor Markets and Policy Backlash in the Past," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 12(4), pages 51-72, Fall.
    2. Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1998. "Growth, Distribution, and Demography: Some Lessons from History," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 35(3), pages 241-271, July.
    3. Robert Moffitt, 1999. "Explaining Welfare Reform: Public Choice and the Labor Market," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 6(3), pages 289-315, August.
    4. R. D. Plotnick & E. Smolensky & E. Evenhouse & S. Reilly, "undated". "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.
    5. Matthew Higgins & Jeffrey G. Williamson, 1999. "Explaining inequality the world round: cohort size, Kuznets curves, and openness," Staff Reports 79, Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
    6. Michael R. Haines & Lee A. Craig & Thomas Weiss, 2000. "Development, Health, Nutrition, and Mortality: The Case of the 'Antebellum Puzzle' in the United States," NBER Historical Working Papers 0130, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

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