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Social Mobility and the Demand for Redistribution : the POUM Hypothesis

  • Bénabou, Roland
  • Ok, Efe

Even relatively poor people oppose high rates of redistribution because of the anticipation that they, or their children, may move up the income ladder. This ‘Prospect of Upward Mobility’ (POUM) hypothesis is commonly advanced to explain why democracies do not engage in large-scale progressive redistributions. But is it compatible with rational expectations, given that not everyone can end up richer than average? This paper establishes the formal basis for the POUM hypothesis. There is a range of incomes below average where agents oppose lasting redistributions, provided tomorrow’s expected income is increasing and concave in today’s income. The laissez-faire coalition is larger the more concave the transition function and the longer the political horizon. We illustrate the general analysis with an example (calibrated to the United States) where three-quarters of families are always poorer than average, yet a two-thirds majority has expected future incomes above the mean. We also analyse mobility matrices from the Panel Study on Income Dynamics (PSID) and find significant evidence of the POUM effect.

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Paper provided by Institut d'Économie Industrielle (IDEI), Toulouse in its series IDEI Working Papers with number 78.

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Date of creation: 1997
Date of revision: 1999
Handle: RePEc:ide:wpaper:701
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  1. Gourinchas, Pierre-Olivier & Parker, Jonathan A, 2000. "Consumption Over the Life-Cycle," CEPR Discussion Papers 2345, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  2. Bénabou, Roland & Ok, Efe, 1997. "Social Mobility and the Demand for Redistribution : the POUM Hypothesis," IDEI Working Papers 78, Institut d'Économie Industrielle (IDEI), Toulouse, revised 1999.
  3. Marhuenda, Francisco & Ortuno-Ortin, Ignacio, 1995. "Popular support for progressive taxation," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 48(3-4), pages 319-324, June.
  4. Francisco Marhuenda & Ignacio Ortuño Ortín, 1995. "Popular Support For Progressive Taxation," Working Papers. Serie AD 1995-15, Instituto Valenciano de Investigaciones Económicas, S.A. (Ivie).
  5. Thomas Piketty, 1994. "Social Mobility and Redistributive Politics," Working papers 94-15, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  6. Giacomo Bonanno & John Roemer & Louis Putterman & Wen Hai & Shunli Yao, 2003. "Does Egalitarianism Have a Future?," Working Papers 969, University of California, Davis, Department of Economics.
  7. Durlauf, S.N. & Cooper, S.J. & Johnson, P.A., 1993. "On the Evolution of Economic Status Across Generations," Working papers 9329, Wisconsin Madison - Social Systems.
  8. Roemer, John E., 1998. "Why the poor do not expropriate the rich: an old argument in new garb," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 70(3), pages 399-424, December.
  9. Persson, Torsten & Tabellini, Guido, 1994. "Is Inequality Harmful for Growth?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(3), pages 600-621, June.
  10. Hirschman, Albert O & Rothschild, Michael, 1973. "The Changing Tolerance for Income Inequality in the Course of Economic Development; with a Mathematical Appendix," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 87(4), pages 544-66, November.
  11. Alesina, Alberto & Rodrik, Dani, 1994. "Distributive Politics and Economic Growth," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 109(2), pages 465-90, May.
  12. Dardanoni Valentino, 1993. "Measuring Social Mobility," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 61(2), pages 372-394, December.
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