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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. Rodrik, Dani & Alesina, Alberto, 1994. "Distributive Politics and Economic Growth," Scholarly Articles 4551798, Harvard University Department of Economics.
  2. Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas & Jonathan A. Parker, 2002. "Consumption Over the Life Cycle," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 70(1), pages 47-89, January.
  3. 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).
  4. Alberto Alesina & Dani Rodrik, 1994. "Distributive Politics and Economic Growth," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 109(2), pages 465-490.
  5. Marhuenda, Francisco & Ortuno-Ortin, Ignacio, 1995. "Popular support for progressive taxation," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 48(3-4), pages 319-324, June.
  6. Thomas Piketty, 1994. "Social Mobility and Redistributive Politics," Working papers 94-15, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Department of Economics.
  7. 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.
  8. Benabou, R. & Ok, E.A., 1998. "Social Mobility and the Demand for Redistribution: The POUM Hypothesis," Working Papers 98-23, C.V. Starr Center for Applied Economics, New York University.
  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. Albert O. Hirschman & Michael Rothschild, 1973. "The Changing Tolerance for Income Inequality in the Course of Economic DevelopmentWith A Mathematical Appendix," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 87(4), pages 544-566.
  11. 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.
  12. Dardanoni Valentino, 1993. "Measuring Social Mobility," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 61(2), pages 372-394, December.
  13. 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.
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