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Redistribution Policy and Inequality Reduction in OECD Countries: What Has Changed in Two Decades?

  • Immervoll, Herwig



  • Richardson, Linda



We use a range of data sources to assess if, and to what extent, government redistribution policies have slowed or accelerated the trend towards greater income disparities in the past 20-25 years. In most countries, inequality among "non-elderly" households has widened during most phases of the economic cycle and any episodes of narrowing income differentials have usually not lasted long enough to close the gap between high and low incomes that had opened up previously. With progressive redistribution systems in place, greater inequality automatically leads to more redistribution, even if no policy action is taken. We find that, in the context of rising market-income inequality, tax-benefit systems have indeed become more redistributive since the 1980s but that this did not stop income inequality from rising: market-income inequality grew by twice as much as redistribution. Between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, the redistributive strength of tax-benefit systems then weakened in many countries. While growing market-income disparities were the main driver of inequality trends between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, reduced redistribution was often the main reason why inequality rose in the ten years that followed. Benefits had a much stronger impact on inequality than social contributions or taxes, despite the much bigger aggregate size of direct taxes. As a result, redistribution policies were often less successful at counteracting growing income gaps in the upper parts of the income distribution.

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Paper provided by Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in its series IZA Discussion Papers with number 6030.

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Length: 90 pages
Date of creation: Oct 2011
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp6030
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  1. Herwig Immervoll & Pascal Marianna & Marco Mira d'Ercole, 2004. "Benefit Coverage Rates and Household Typologies: Scope and Limitations of Tax-Benefit Indicators," OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers 20, OECD Publishing.
  2. Olivier Bargain & Claire Keane, 2010. "Tax-benefit revealed redistributive preferences over time : Ireland 1987-2005," Working Papers 201033, School of Economics, University College Dublin.
  3. Olivier Bargain & Tim Callan, 2007. "Analysing the Effects of Tax-benefit Reforms on Income Distribution: A decomposition Approach," Papers WP197, Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).
  4. Paul Gregg, Rosanna Scutella and Jonathan Wadsworth, 2004. "Reconciling Workless Measures at the Individual and Household Level. Theory and Evidence from the United States, Britain, Germany, Spain and Australia," Royal Holloway, University of London: Discussion Papers in Economics 04/04, Department of Economics, Royal Holloway University of London, revised Apr 2004.
  5. Olivier Bargain & Mathias Dolls & Herwig Immervoll & Dirk Neumann & Andreas Peichl & Nico Pestel & Sebastian Siegloch, 2011. "Tax policy and income inequality in the U.S., 1978—2009: A decomposition approach," Working Papers 215, ECINEQ, Society for the Study of Economic Inequality.
  6. Loukas Karabarbounis, 2011. "One Dollar, One Vote," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 121(553), pages 621-651, 06.
  7. Yitzhaki, Shlomo, 1983. "On an Extension of the Gini Inequality Index," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 24(3), pages 617-28, October.
  8. Stéphane Carcillo & David Grubb, 2006. "From Inactivity to Work: The Role of Active Labour Market Policies," OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers 36, OECD Publishing.
  9. Herwig Immervoll & Mark Pearson, 2009. "A Good Time for Making Work Pay? Taking Stock of In-Work Benefits and Related Measures across the OECD," OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers 81, OECD Publishing.
  10. Marja Riihelä & Risto Sullström & Ilpo Suoniemi, 2008. "Tax Progressivity and Recent Evolution of the Finnish Income Inequality," Discussion Papers 460, Government Institute for Economic Research Finland (VATT).
  11. Stuart Adam & James Browne, 2010. "Redistribution, work incentives and thirty years of UK tax and benefit reform," IFS Working Papers W10/24, Institute for Fiscal Studies.
  12. Immervoll, Herwig, 2009. "Minimum-Income Benefits in OECD Countries: Policy Design, Effectiveness and Challenges," IZA Discussion Papers 4627, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  13. McKinley L. Blackburn & David E. Bloom, 1994. "Changes in the Structure of Family Income Inequality in the United States and Other Industrial Nationa During the 1980s," NBER Working Papers 4754, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. Herwig Immervoll, 2005. "Falling Up The Stairs: The Effects Of "Bracket Creep" On Household Incomes," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 51(1), pages 37-62, 03.
  15. Christopher Heady & Theodore Mitrakos & Panos Tsakloglou, 2001. "The distributional impact of social transfers in the European Union: evidence from the ECHP," Fiscal Studies, Institute for Fiscal Studies, vol. 22(4), pages 547-565., December.
  16. Donaldson, David & Weymark, John A., 1980. "A single-parameter generalization of the Gini indices of inequality," Journal of Economic Theory, Elsevier, vol. 22(1), pages 67-86, February.
  17. André Decoster & Guy Van Camp, 2000. "Redistributive Effects of the Shift from Personal Income Taxes to Indirect Taxes: Belgium 1988-1993," Public Economics Working Paper Series ces0007, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Centrum voor Economische Studiën, Working Group Public Economics.
  18. Adam Wagstaff & Eddy van Doorslaer, 2001. "What Makes the Personal Income Tax Progressive? A Comparative Analysis for Fifteen OECD Countries," International Tax and Public Finance, Springer;International Institute of Public Finance, vol. 8(3), pages 299-316, May.
  19. Anna Christina D'Addio & Herwig Immervoll, 2010. "Earnings of Men and Women Working in the Private Sector: Enriched Data for Pensions and Tax-Benefit Modeling," OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers 108, OECD Publishing.
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