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Is Economic Inequality Really a Problem?

Yes, but the answer is less obvious than you might think.

economic equality essay

By Samuel Scheffler

Dr. Scheffler is a professor of philosophy.

It is impossible to ignore the stark disparities of income and wealth that prevail in this country, and a great many of us are troubled by this state of affairs.

But is economic inequality really what bothers us? An influential essay published in 1987 by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt suggests that we have misidentified the problem. Professor Frankfurt argued that it does not matter whether some people have less than others. What matters is that some people do not have enough. They lack adequate income, have little or no wealth and do not enjoy decent housing, health care or education. If even the worst-off people had enough resources to lead good and fulfilling lives, then the fact that others had still greater resources would not be troubling.

When some people don’t have enough and others have vastly more than they need, it is easy to conclude that the problem is one of inequality. But this, according to Professor Frankfurt, is a mistake. The problem isn’t inequality as such. It’s the poverty and deprivation suffered by those who have least.

Professor Frankfurt’s essay didn’t persuade all his fellow philosophers, many of whom remained egalitarians. But his challenge continued to resonate and, in 2015, even as concerns about economic inequality were growing in many corners of society, he published a short book in which he reaffirmed his position.

And Professor Frankfurt, it seems, has a point. Those in the top 10 percent of America’s economic distribution are in a very comfortable position. Those in the top 1 percent are in an even more comfortable position than those in the other 9 percent. But few people find this kind of inequality troubling. Inequality bothers us most, it seems, only when some are very rich and others are very poor.

Even when the worst-off people are very poor, moreover, it wouldn’t be an improvement to reduce everyone else to their level. Equality would then prevail, but equal misery is hardly an ideal worth striving for.

So perhaps we shouldn’t object to economic inequality as such. Instead, we should just try to improve the position of those who have least. We should work to eliminate poverty, hunger, bad schools, substandard housing and inadequate medical care. But we shouldn’t make the elimination of inequality our aim.

Is this the correct conclusion? I think not. Economic inequality matters a great deal whether or not it matters “as such.”

Start by considering two points that Professor Frankfurt himself would accept. First, to succeed in eliminating poverty and securing decent conditions of life for all Americans would require raising taxes on the rich significantly. Although the ultimate purpose would not be to reduce inequality, the indirect effect would be to do just that. So even if inequality as such is not the problem, reducing inequality is almost certainly part of the solution.

Second, even if economic inequality is not a problem in and of itself, it can still have bad effects. Great disparities of income and wealth, of the kind we see in the United States today, can have damaging effects even when nobody is badly off in absolute terms. For example, the wealthiest may be able to exert a disproportionate share of political influence and to shape society in conformity with their interests. They may be able to make the law work for them rather than for everyone, and so undermine the rule of law. Enough economic inequality can transform a democracy into a plutocracy, a society ruled by the rich.

Large inequalities of inherited wealth can be particularly damaging, creating, in effect, an economic caste system that inhibits social mobility and undercuts equality of opportunity.

Extreme inequality can also have subtler and more insidious effects, which are especially pronounced when those who have the least are also poor and lack adequate resources, but which may persist even if everyone has enough. The rich may persuade themselves that they fully deserve their enormous wealth and develop attitudes of entitlement and privilege. Those who have less may develop feelings of inferiority and deference, on the one hand, and hostility and resentment on the other. In this way, extreme inequality can distort people’s view of themselves and compromise their relations with one another.

This brings us to a more fundamental point. The great political philosopher John Rawls thought that a liberal society should conceive of itself as a fair system of cooperation among free and equal people. Often, it seems, we do like to think of ourselves that way. We know that our society has always been blighted by grave injustices, beginning with the great moral catastrophe of slavery, but we aspire to create a society of equals, and we are proud of the steps we have taken toward that ideal.

But extreme inequality makes a mockery of our aspiration. In a society marked by the spectacular inequalities of income and wealth that have emerged in the United States in the past few decades, there is no meaningful sense in which all citizens, rich and poor alike, can nevertheless relate to one another on an equal footing. Even if poverty were eliminated and everyone had enough resources to lead a decent life, that would not by itself transform American citizenship into a relationship among equals. There is a limit to the degree of economic inequality that is compatible with the ideal of a society of equals and, although there is room for disagreement about where exactly the limit lies, it is clear that we have long since exceeded it.

If extreme economic inequality undermines the ideal of a society of equals, then is that merely one of its bad effects, like its corrupting influence on the political process? Or, instead, is that simply what it is for economic inequality to matter as such?

For practical purposes, it doesn’t make much difference which answer we give. In either case, the imperative that Professor Frankfurt identified — the imperative to ensure that all citizens have enough resources to lead decent lives — is of the utmost importance. It is appalling that so many people in a society as wealthy as ours continue to lack adequate housing, nutrition, medical care and education, and do not enjoy the full benefits of the rule of law. But addressing Professor Frankfurt’s imperative is not enough. Extreme economic inequality, whether it matters as such or “merely” for its effects, is pernicious. It threatens to transform us from a democracy into a plutocracy, and it makes a mockery of the ideal of equal citizenship.

If, as they say, every crisis is an opportunity, then America today is truly the land of opportunity. Of the many opportunities with which our current crises have presented us, one of the most basic is the opportunity to rethink our conception of ourselves as a society. Going forward, we must decide whether we wish to constitute ourselves as a genuine society of equals or, alternatively, whether we are content to have our relations with one another structured by an increasingly stark and unforgiving economic and social hierarchy.

Samuel Scheffler is a professor of philosophy and law at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Why Worry About Future Generations?”

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To Fight Inequality, America Needs to Rethink Its Economic Model

economic equality essay

F or decades, economic policy in most liberal democracies has been premised on two core beliefs: that free markets would maximize economic growth, and that we could address inequality through redistribution.

The recent revival of industrial policy, championed by President Biden, is a clear repudiation of the first of these beliefs. It reflects a growing recognition among economists that state intervention to shape markets and steer investment is crucial for fostering innovation, protecting strategically important sectors like semi-conductors, and tackling the climate emergency.

But we must also reassess the second belief—that taxes and transfers alone can address the vast inequalities that have brought American democracy to such a perilous juncture. Doing so will lead us towards a more fundamental rethink of our economic institutions, and the values that guide them.

This is partly a pragmatic response to economic reality. The massive increase in inequality since the 1980s in America was mostly driven not by a reduction in redistribution, but by the growing gap in earnings between low skill workers, whose wages have suffered an unprecedented period of stagnation, and college-educated professionals whose salaries have continued to soar. And while inequality has increased in most advanced economies, that it is so much higher in the U.S. compared to Europe is mostly the result of bigger gaps in earnings than lower levels of redistribution. In other words, even if America were to increase the generosity of the welfare state to European levels it would still be much more unequal.

But the need to look beyond redistribution is about more than economics, it is about resisting the narrow focus on money that dominates most debates about inequality, and the tendency to reduce our interests as citizens to those of consumers. While government transfers are essential for making sure that everyone can meet their basic needs, simply topping up people’s incomes fails to recognize the importance of work as a source of independence, identity, and community, and does nothing to address the insecurity faced by gig-economy workers, or the constant surveillance of employees in Amazon warehouses.

This is not purely a moral issue. According to a recent paper by economists at Columbia and Princeton, the Democratic Party’s shift towards a “compensate the losers ” strategy in the 1970s and 1980s—taxing high earners to fund welfare payments to the poor—played a key role in driving away less educated voters, who disproportionately support “pre-redistributive” policies like higher minimum wages and stronger unions.

Things are moving in the right direction. President Biden has put “good jobs” at the centre of his economic agenda, claiming that “a job is about [a] lot more than a pay cheque. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect.” Leading economists such as Dani Rodrik at Harvard and Daron Acemoglu at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s have started to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that such jobs are an inevitable by-product of a well-functioning market economy. This shift of focus towards the production or supply side of the economy has been variously termed “ productivism ”, “ modern supply-side economics ” and “ supply-side progressivism .”

Read More: Why Joe Biden is Running on the Economy

And yet, to grasp the full potential of these ideas we must look beyond economics to philosophy. Contemporary thinkers such as Michael Sandel and Elizabeth Anderson have done much to put questions about work back on the agenda. But for a systematic vision of a just society that recognizes the fundamental importance of work we should revisit the ideas of arguably the 20th-century’s greatest political philosopher, John Rawls—an early advocate for what we would now call “pre-distribution,” who argued that every citizen should have access to good jobs, a fair share of society’s wealth, and a say over how work is organized.

The publication of Rawls’s magnum opus A Theory of Justice in 1971 marks a watershed moment in the history of political thought, drawing favourable comparisons to the likes of John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, even Plato. Rawls’s most famous idea is a thought experiment called the “original position.” If we want to know what a fair society would look like, he argued, we should imagine how we would choose to organize it if we didn’t know what our individual position would be—rich or poor, Black or white, Christian of Muslim— as if behind a “veil of ignorance.”

Our first priority would be to secure a set of “basic liberties,” such as free speech and the right to vote, that are the basis for individual freedom and civic equality.

When it comes to the economy, we would want “fair equality of opportunity,” and we would tolerate a degree of inequality so that people have incentives to work hard and innovate, making society richer overall. But rather than assuming that the benefits would trickle down to those at the bottom, Rawls argued that we would want to organize our economy so that the least well-off would be better off than under any alternative system—a concept he called the “difference principle.”

This principle has often been interpreted as justifying a fairly conventional strategy of taxing the rich and redistributing to the poor. But Rawls explicitly rejected “welfare state capitalism” in favour of what he called a “property-owning democracy.” Rather than simply topping up the incomes of the least well off, society should “put in the hands of citizens generally, and not only of a few, sufficient productive means for them to be fully cooperating members of society.”

Doing so is essential for individual dignity and self-respect, he argued, warning that “Lacking a sense of long-term security and the opportunity for meaningful work and occupation is not only destructive of citizens’ self-respect but of their sense that they are members of society and not simply caught in it. This leads to self-hatred, bitterness, and resentment” – feelings that could threaten the stability of liberal democracy itself. A focus on work is also necessary for maintaining a sense of reciprocity since every able citizen would be expected to contribute to society in return for a fair reward.

Rawls’s philosophy offers the kind of big picture vision that has been missing on the center-left for a generation—a unifying alternative to ‘identity politics’ grounded in the best of America’s political traditions. It also points towards a genuinely transformative economic programme that would address the concerns of long-neglected lower-income voters, not simply for higher incomes but for a chance to contribute to society and to be treated with respect.

At the heart of this vision is the idea that productive resources—both human capital (skills) and ownership of physical capital (like stocks and shares)—should be widely shared. People’s incomes would still depend on their individual effort and good fortune, but wages and profits would be more equal, and there would be less need for redistribution.

How might we bring this about?

First, we would need to ensure equal access to education, irrespective of family background. Sadly, the reality in America today is that children from the richest fifth of households are fivetimes more likely to get a college degree than those from the poorest fifth. Achieving true equality of opportunity is a generational challenge, but the direction should be towards universal early years education, school funding based on need rather than local wealth, and a higher education system where tuition subsidies and publicly-funded income-contingent loans guarantee access to all.

We also need to shift focus towards the more than half of the population who don’t get a four-year college degree. Our obsession with academic higher education—justified in part on the basis that this will generate growth, which in turn will benefit non-graduates—is simply the educational equivalent of trickle-down economics. At the very least, public subsidies should be made available on equal terms for those who want to follow a vocational route, as the U.K. is doing through the introduction of a Lifelong Learning Entitlement from 2025, providing every individual with financial support for four years of post-18 education, covering both long and short courses, and vocational and academic subjects.

Second, we must address the vastly unequal distribution of wealth . Thewealthiest 10 % of Americans have around 70 % of all personal wealth compared to roughly 2% the entire bottom half. Sensible policies like guaranteed minimum interest rates for small savers and tax breaks to encourage employee share ownership would encourage middle-class savings. But to shift the dial on wealth inequality we should be open to something more radical, like a universal minimum inheritance paid to each citizen at the age of eighteen, funded through progressive taxes on inheritance and wealth. If developments in AI push more income towards the owners of capital, something like this will become necessary.

Finally, we need to give workers real power to shape how companies are run. The idea that owners, or shareholders, should make these decisions is often treated as an immutable fact of economic life. But this “shareholder primacy” is neither natural nor inevitable about, and in most European countries employees have the right to elect representatives to company boards and to ‘works councils’ with a say over working conditions. This system of ‘co-management’ allows owners and worker to strike a balance between pursuing profit and all the other things we want from work – security, dignity, a sense of achievement, community – in a way that makes sense for a particular firm. The benefits of co-management appear to come at little or no cost in terms of profits or competitiveness, are popular with managers, and may even increase  business investment and productivity.

Critics will no doubt denounce these ideas as “socialism.” But as we have seen, they have impeccable liberal credentials, and are perfectly compatible with the dynamic market economy that is so vital both for individual freedom and economic prosperity. Neither are they somehow “un-American.” As Elizabeth Anderson has reminded us , America was the great hope of free market egalitarians from Adam Smith through to Abraham Lincoln, whose dreams of a society of small-scale independent producers were dashed by the industrial revolution, and would have been horrified by the hierarchy and subservience of contemporary capitalism. Rawls’s ideal of property-owning democracy can help us revive this vision for the 21 st century.

Still, even sympathetic readers might wonder whether there is any point talking about a new economic paradigm when the U.S. has failed even to raise the Federal minimum wage since 2009. But this would be to ignore the lessons of history. As the neoliberal era comes to an end, we should learn from its leading architects Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, who were nothing if not bold, and saw their ideas go from heresy to orthodoxy in a single generation. As Friedman put it “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around."

It often takes a generation or two before the ideas of truly great thinkers start to shape real politics. Now, for the first time since the publication of  A Theory of Justice  just over half a century ago, there is an urgent need and appetite for systematic political thinking on a scale that only a philosopher like Rawls can provide. In the face of widespread cynicism, even despair about the American project, his ideas offer a hopeful vision of the future whose time has come.

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6 facts about economic inequality in the U.S.

Houses in Naples, Florida. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Rising economic inequality in the United States has become a central issue in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and discussions about policy interventions that might help address it are likely to remain at the forefront in the 2020 general election .

As these debates continue, here are some basic facts about how economic inequality has changed over time and how the U.S. compares globally.

How we did this

For this analysis, we gathered data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Bank . We also used previously published data points from Pew Research Center surveys and analyses of outside data.

The highest-earning 20% of families made more than half of all U.S. income in 2018

Over the past 50 years, the highest-earning 20% of U.S. households have steadily brought in a larger share of the country’s total income. In 2018, households in the top fifth of earners (with incomes of $130,001 or more that year) brought in 52% of all U.S. income, more than the lower four-fifths combined, according to Census Bureau data.

In 1968, by comparison, the top-earning 20% of households brought in 43% of the nation’s income, while those in the lower four income quintiles accounted for 56%.

U.S. has highest level of income inequality among G7 countries

Among the top 5% of households – those with incomes of at least $248,729 in 2018 – their share of all U.S. income rose from 16% in 1968 to 23% in 2018.

Income inequality in the U.S. is the highest of all the G7 nations , according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development . To compare income inequality across countries, the OECD uses the Gini coefficient , a commonly used measure ranging from 0, or perfect equality, to 1, or complete inequality. In 2017, the U.S. had a Gini coefficient of 0.434. In the other G7 nations, the Gini ranged from 0.326 in France to 0.392 in the UK.

Globally, the Gini ranges from lows of about 0.25 in some Eastern European countries to highs of 0.5 to 0.6 in countries in southern Africa, according to World Bank estimates .

In the U.S., black-white income gap has held steady since 1970

The black-white income gap in the U.S. has persisted over time. The difference in median household incomes between white and black Americans has grown from about $23,800 in 1970 to roughly $33,000 in 2018 (as measured in 2018 dollars). Median black household income was 61% of median white household income in 2018, up modestly from 56% in 1970 – but down slightly from 63% in 2007, before the Great Recession , according to Current Population Survey data.

Overall, 61% of Americans say there is too much economic inequality in the country today, but views differ by political party and household income level. Among Republicans and those who lean toward the GOP, 41% say there is too much inequality in the U.S., compared with 78% of Democrats and Democratic leaners, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in September 2019 found.

Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to say there's too much economic inequality

Across income groups, U.S. adults are about equally likely to say there is too much economic inequality. But upper- (27%) and middle-income Americans (26%) are more likely than those with lower incomes (17%) to say that there is about the right amount of economic inequality.

These views also vary by income within the two party coalitions. Lower-income Republicans are more likely than upper-income ones to say there’s too much inequality in the country today (48% vs. 34%). Among Democrats, the reverse is true: 93% at upper-income levels say there is too much inequality, compared with 65% of lower-income Democrats.

Since 1981, the incomes of the top 5% of earners have increased faster than the incomes of other families

The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016, according to a recent analysis by the Center. Another way of measuring inequality is to look at household wealth, also known as net worth, or the value of assets owned by a family, such as a home or a savings account, minus outstanding debt, such as a mortgage or student loan.

In 1989, the richest 5% of families had 114 times as much wealth as families in the second quintile (one tier above the lowest), at the median $2.3 million compared with $20,300. By 2016, the top 5% held 248 times as much wealth at the median. (The median wealth of the poorest 20% is either zero or negative in most years we examined.)

The richest families are also the only ones whose wealth increased in the years after the start of the Great Recession. From 2007 to 2016, the median net worth of the top 20% increased 13%, to $1.2 million. For the top 5%, it increased by 4%, to $4.8 million. In contrast, the median net worth of families in lower tiers of wealth decreased by at least 20%. Families in the second-lowest fifth experienced a 39% loss (from $32,100 in 2007 to $19,500 in 2016).

Middle-class incomes have grown at a slower rate than upper-tier incomes over the past five decades, the same analysis found . From 1970 to 2018, the median middle-class income increased from $58,100 to $86,600, a gain of 49%. By comparison, the median income for upper-tier households grew 64% over that time, from $126,100 to $207,400.

The share of American adults who live in middle-income households has decreased from 61% in 1971 to 51% in 2019. During this time, the share of adults in the upper-income tier increased from 14% to 20%, and the share in the lower-income tier increased from 25% to 29%.

The gaps in income between upper-income and middle- and lower-income households are rising, and the share held by middle-income households is falling

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5 Essays to Learn More About Equality

“Equality” is one of those words that seems simple, but is more complicated upon closer inspection. At its core, equality can be defined as “the state of being equal.” When societies value equality, their goals include racial, economic, and gender equality . Do we really know what equality looks like in practice? Does it mean equal opportunities, equal outcomes, or both? To learn more about this concept, here are five essays focusing on equality:

“The Equality Effect” (2017) – Danny Dorling

In this essay, professor Danny Dorling lays out why equality is so beneficial to the world. What is equality? It’s living in a society where everyone gets the same freedoms, dignity, and rights. When equality is realized, a flood of benefits follows. Dorling describes the effect of equality as “magical.” Benefits include happier and healthier citizens, less crime, more productivity, and so on. Dorling believes the benefits of “economically equitable” living are so clear, change around the world is inevitable. Despite the obvious conclusion that equality creates a better world, progress has been slow. We’ve become numb to inequality. Raising awareness of equality’s benefits is essential.

Danny Dorling is the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford. He has co-authored and authored a handful of books, including Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration—and Why It’s Good for the Planet, the Economy, and Our Lives . “The Equality Effect” is excerpted from this book. Dorling’s work focuses on issues like health, education, wealth, poverty, and employment.

“The Equality Conundrum” (2020) – Joshua Rothman

Originally published as “Same Difference” in the New Yorker’s print edition, this essay opens with a story. A couple plans on dividing their money equally among their children. However, they realize that to ensure equal success for their children, they might need to start with unequal amounts. This essay digs into the complexity of “equality.” While inequality is a major concern for people, most struggle to truly define it. Citing lectures, studies, philosophy, religion, and more, Rothman sheds light on the fact that equality is not a simple – or easy – concept.

Joshua Rothman has worked as a writer and editor of The New Yorker since 2012. He is the ideas editor of newyorker.com.

“Why Understanding Equity vs Equality in Schools Can Help You Create an Inclusive Classroom” (2019) – Waterford.org

Equality in education is critical to society. Students that receive excellent education are more likely to succeed than students who don’t. This essay focuses on the importance of equity, which means giving support to students dealing with issues like poverty, discrimination and economic injustice. What is the difference between equality and equity? What are some strategies that can address barriers? This essay is a great introduction to the equity issues teachers face and why equity is so important.

Waterford.org is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving equity and education in the United States. It believes that the educational experiences children receive are crucial for their future. Waterford.org was founded by Dr. Dustin Heuston.

“What does equality mean to me?” (2020) – Gabriela Vivacqua and Saddal Diab

While it seems simple, the concept of equality is complex. In this piece posted by WFP_Africa on the WFP’s Insight page, the authors ask women from South Sudan what equality means to them. Half of South Sudan’s population consists of women and girls. Unequal access to essentials like healthcare, education, and work opportunities hold them back. Complete with photographs, this short text gives readers a glimpse into interpretations of equality and what organizations like the World Food Programme are doing to tackle gender inequality.

As part of the UN, the World Food Programme is the world’s largest humanitarian organization focusing on hunger and food security . It provides food assistance to over 80 countries each year.

“Here’s How Gender Equality is Measured” (2020) – Catherine Caruso

Gender inequality is one of the most discussed areas of inequality. Sobering stats reveal that while progress has been made, the world is still far from realizing true gender equality. How is gender equality measured? This essay refers to the Global Gender Gap report ’s factors. This report is released each year by the World Economic Forum. The four factors are political empowerment, health and survival, economic participation and opportunity, and education. The author provides a brief explanation of each factor.

Catherine Caruso is the Editorial Intern at Global Citizen, a movement committed to ending extreme poverty by 2030. Previously, Caruso worked as a writer for Inquisitr. Her English degree is from Syracuse University. She writes stories on health, the environment, and citizenship.

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About the author, emmaline soken-huberty.

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

The economic gains from equity

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Shelby r. buckman , shelby r. buckman graduate student - stanford university laura y. choi , laura y. choi vice president, community development - federal reserve bank of san francisco mary c. daly , and mary c. daly president and chief executive officer - federal reserve bank of san francisco lily m. seitelman lily m. seitelman graduate student - boston university discussants: nicole fortin and nicole fortin professor - university of british columbia erik hurst erik hurst frank p. and marianne r. diassi distinguished service professor of economics - booth school of business, university of chicago, deputy director - becker friedman institute @erikhurst.

September 8, 2021

The paper summarized here is part of the Fall 2021 edition of the  Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA) , the leading conference series and journal in economics for timely, cutting-edge research about real-world policy issues. The conference draft of the paper was presented on September 9, 2021 at the  Fall 2021 BPEA conference . The final version was published in the Fall 2021 edition by Brookings Institution Press on June 7, 2022.  Read all papers published in this edition here»   Submit a proposal to present at a future BPEA conference here»

Longstanding racial and ethnic disparities in the United States have hurt not only the people who experience the disparities but have hurt all Americans by depressing U.S. economic output by trillions of dollars over the past 30 years, suggests a paper discussed at the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA) conference on September 9.

The authors— Shelby R. Buckman, Laura Y. Choi, Mary C. Daly¸ and Lily M. Seitelman, all of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco—considered differences from 1990 to 2019 among white, Black, and Hispanic men and women, ages 25-64. They looked at disparities using five metrics: employment (the percentage of people with jobs); hours worked; educational attainment (the level of education completed); educational utilization (the extent to which people are in jobs that fully use their education); and earnings gaps not explained by those factors.

Then, in The economic gains from equity , they conducted a thought experiment, asking: “How much larger would the U.S. economic pie be if opportunities and outcomes were more equally distributed by race and ethnicity?” Their answer is $22.9 trillion over the 30-year period.

“The persistence of systemic disparities is costly, and eliminating them has the potential to produce large economic gains,” the authors write. Standard economic models often assume markets work efficiently and thus suggest explanations—such as unmeasured differences in productivity or cultural differences—that would support the existence and persistence of racial and ethnic gaps. The authors instead assume talent and job and educational preferences are distributed evenly across race and ethnicity. They then show the economic effects of disparities that hold people back from fully realizing their potential.

The persistence of systemic disparities is costly, and eliminating them has the potential to produce large economic gains

“The opportunity to participate in the economy and to succeed based on ability and effort is at the foundation of our nation and our economy,” they write. “Unfortunately, structural barriers have persistently disrupted this narrative for many Americans, leaving the talents of millions of people underutilized or on the sidelines. The result is lower prosperity, not just for those affected, but for everyone.”

“With considerable pressures weighing on U.S. economic potential in coming decades, the time seems right to take a new perspective and imagine what’s possible if equity is achieved,” the authors conclude.

The authors note in the paper that they built on the work of others and cite in particular the work, dating to 1985, of four African-American economists: William A. Darity, Patrick L. Mason, William E. Spriggs, and the late Rhonda M. Williams.


David Skidmore authored the summary language for this paper.

Buckman, Shelby R., Laura Y. Choi, Mary C. Daly¸ and Lily M. Seitelman. 2021. “The Economic Gains from Equity.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity , Fall. 71-111.

Fortin, Nicole. 2021. “Comment on ‘The Economic Gains from Equity’.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity , Fall. 112-130.

Hurst, Erik. 2021. “Comment on ‘The Economic Gains from Equity’.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity , Fall. 130-135.

Conflict of Interest Disclosure

Shelby R. Buckman is a graduate student in economics at Stanford University and a past employee at FRBSF during which time she did the majority of her contribution to this paper; Laura Y. Choi is vice president of community development at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Mary C. Daly is president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, CRIW member, and IZA research fellow; Lily M. Seitelman is a graduate student in economics at Boston University and a past employee at FRBSF during which time she did the majority of her contribution to this paper. Beyond these affiliations, the authors did not receive financial support from any firm or person for this paper or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this paper. They are currently not officers, directors, or board members of any organization with an interest in this paper. No outside party had the right to review this paper before circulation. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. DGE-1840990 and Grant No. DGE-1840990.

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This article is concerned with social and political equality. In its prescriptive usage, ‘equality’ is a highly contested concept. Its normally positive connotation gives it a rhetorical power suitable for use in political slogans (Westen 1990). At least since the French Revolution, equality has served as one of the leading ideals of the body politic; in this respect, it is at present probably the most controversial of the great social ideals. There is controversy concerning the precise notion of equality, the relation of justice and equality (the principles of equality), the material requirements and measure of the ideal of equality (equality of what?), the extension of equality (equality among whom?), and its status within a comprehensive (liberal) theory of justice (the value of equality). This article will discuss each of these issues in turn.

1. Defining the Concept

2.1 formal equality, 2.2 proportional equality, 2.3 moral equality, 2.4 presumption of equality, 3.1 simple equality and objections to equality in general, 3.2 libertarianism, 3.3 utilitarianism, 3.4 equality of welfare, 3.5 equality of resources, 3.6 responsibility and luck-egalitarianism, 3.7 equality of opportunity for welfare or advantage, 3.8 capabilities approaches, 4. relational equality, 5. equality among whom, 6.1. kinds of egalitarianism, 6.2 equality vs. priority or sufficiency, other internet resources, related entries.

‘Equality’ is a contested concept: “People who praise it or disparage it disagree about what they are praising or disparaging” (Dworkin 2000, p. 2). Our first task is therefore to provide a clear definition of equality in the face of widespread misconceptions about its meaning as a political idea. The terms ‘equality’ (Greek: isotes ; Latin: aequitas , aequalitas ; French: égalité ; German Gleichheit ), ‘equal’, and ‘equally’ signify a qualitative relationship. ‘Equality’ (or ‘equal’) signifies correspondence between a group of different objects, persons, processes or circumstances that have the same qualities in at least one respect, but not all respects, i.e., regarding one specific feature, with differences in other features. ‘Equality’ must then be distinguished from ‘identity’, which refers to one and the same object corresponding to itself in all its features. For the same reason, it needs to be distinguished from ‘similarity’ – the concept of merely approximate correspondence (Dann 1975, p. 997; Menne 1962, p. 44 ff.; Westen 1990, pp. 39, 120). Thus, to say that men are equal, for example, is not to say that they are identical. Equality implies similarity rather than ‘sameness’.

Judgements of equality presume a difference between the things compared. According to this definition, the notion of ‘complete’ or ‘absolute’ equality may be seen as problematic because it would violate the presumption of a difference. Two non-identical objects are never completely equal; they are different at least in their spatiotemporal location. If things do not differ they should not be called ‘equal’, but rather, more precisely, ‘identical’, such as the morning and the evening star. Here usage might vary. Some authors do consider absolute qualitative equality admissible as a borderline concept (Tugendhat & Wolf 1983, p. 170).

‘Equality’ can be used in the very same sense both to describe and prescribe, as with ‘thin’: “you are thin” and “you are too thin”. The approach taken to defining the standard of comparison for both descriptive and prescriptive assertions of equality is very important (Oppenheim 1970). In the descriptive case, the common standard is itself descriptive, for example when two people are said to have the same weight. In the prescriptive use, the standard prescribes a norm or rule, for example when it is said people ought to be equal before the law. The standards grounding prescriptive assertions of equality contain at least two components. On the one hand, there is a descriptive component, since the assertions need to contain descriptive criteria, in order to identify those people to which the rule or norm applies. The question of this identification – who belongs to which category? – may itself be normative, as when we ask to whom the U.S. laws apply. On the other hand, the comparative standards contain something normative – a moral or legal rule, such as the U.S. laws – specifying how those falling under the norm are to be treated. Such a rule constitutes the prescriptive component (Westen 1990, chap. 3). Sociological and economic analyses of (in-)equality mainly pose the questions of how inequalities can be determined and measured and what their causes and effects are. In contrast, social and political philosophy is in general concerned mainly with the following questions: what kind of equality, if any, should obtain, and with respect to whom and when ? Such is the case in this article as well.

‘Equality’ and ‘equal’ are incomplete predicates that necessarily generate one question: equal in what respect? (Rae 1980,p. 132 f.) Equality essentially consists of a tripartite relation between two (or several) objects or persons and one (or several) qualities. Two objects A and B are equal in a certain respect if, in that respect, they fall under the same general term. ‘Equality’ denotes the relation between the objects compared. Every comparison presumes a tertium comparationis , a concrete attribute defining the respect in which the equality applies – equality thus referring to a common sharing of this comparison-determining attribute. This relevant comparative standard represents a ‘variable’ (or ‘index’) of the concept of equality that needs to be specified in each particular case (Westen 1990, p. 10); differing conceptions of equality here emerge from one or another descriptive or normative moral standard. There is another source of diversity as well: As Temkin (1986, 1993, 2009) argues, various different standards might be used to measure inequality, with the respect in which people are compared remaining constant. The difference between a general concept and different specific conceptions (Rawls 1971, p. 21 f.) of equality may explain why some people claim ‘equality’ has no unified meaning – or is even devoid of meaning. (Rae 1981, p. 127 f., 132 f.)

For this reason, it helps to think of the idea of equality or inequality, in the context of social justice, not as a single principle, but as a complex group of principles forming the basic core of today’s egalitarianism. Different principles yield different answers. Both equality and inequality are complex and multifaceted concepts (Temkin 1993, chap. 2). In any real historical context, it is clear that no single notion of equality can sweep the field (Rae 1981, p. 132). Many egalitarians concede that much of our discussion of the concept is vague, but they believe there is also a common underlying strain of important moral concerns implicit in it (Williams 1973). Above all, it serves to remind us of our common humanity, despite various differences (cf. 2.3. below). In this sense, egalitarianism is often thought of as a single, coherent normative doctrine that embraces a variety of principles. Following the introduction of different principles and theories of equality, the discussion will return in the last section to the question how best to define egalitarianism and its core value.

2. Principles of Equality and Justice

Equality in its prescriptive usage is closely linked to morality and justice, and distributive justice in particular. Since antiquity equality has been considered a constitutive feature of justice. (On the history of the concept, cf. Albernethy 1959, Benn 1967, Brown 1988, Dann 1975, Thomson 1949.) People and movements throughout history have used the language of justice to contest inequalities. But what kind of role does equality play in a theory of justice? Philosophers have sought to clarify this by defending a variety of principles and conceptions of equality. This section introduces four such principles, ranging from the highly general and uncontroversial to the more specific and controversial. The next section reviews various conceptions of the ‘currency’ of equality. Different interpretations of the role of equality in a theory of justice emerge according to which of the four principles and metrics have been adopted. The first three principles of equality hold generally and primarily for all actions upon others and affecting others, and for their resulting circumstances. From the fourth principle onward, i.e., starting with the presumption of equality, the focus will be mainly on distributive justice and the evaluation of distribution.

When two persons have equal status in at least one normatively relevant respect, they must be treated equally with regard in this respect. This is the generally accepted formal equality principle that Aristotle articulated in reference to Plato: “treat like cases as like” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics , V.3. 1131a10–b15; Politics , III.9.1280 a8–15, III. 12. 1282b18–23). The crucial question is which respects are normatively relevant and which are not. Some authors see this formal principle of equality as a specific application of a rule of rationality: it is irrational, because inconsistent, to treat equal cases unequally without sufficient reasons (Berlin 1955–56). But others claim that what is at stake here is a moral principle of justice, one reflecting the impartial and universalizable nature of moral judgments. On this view, the postulate of formal equality demands more than consistency with one’s subjective preferences: the equal or unequal treatment in question must be justifiable to the relevantly affected parties, and this on the sole basis of a situation’s objective features.

According to Aristotle, there are two kinds of equality, numerical and proportional (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics , 1130b–1132b; cf. Plato, Laws , VI.757b–c). A way of treating others, or a distribution arising from it, is equal numerically when it treats all persons as indistinguishable, thus treating them identically or granting them the same quantity of a good per capita. That is not always just. In contrast, a way of treating others or a distribution is proportional or relatively equal when it treats all relevant persons in relation to their due. Just numerical equality is a special case of proportional equality. Numerical equality is only just under special circumstances, namely when persons are equal in the relevant respects so that the relevant proportions are equal. Proportional equality further specifies formal equality; it is the more precise and comprehensive formulation of formal equality. It indicates what produces an adequate equality.

Proportional equality in the treatment and distribution of goods to persons involves at least the following concepts or variables: Two or more persons \((P_1, P_2)\) and two or more allocations of goods to persons \((G)\) and \(X\) and \(Y\) as the quantity in which individuals have the relevant normative quality \(E\). This can be represented as an equation with fractions or as a ratio. If \(P1\) has \(E\) in the amount of \(X\) and if \(P_2\) has \(E\) in the amount \(Y\), then \(P_1\) is due \(G\) in the amount of \(X'\) and \(P_2\) is due \(G\) in the amount of \(Y'\), so that the ratio \(X/Y = X'/Y'\) is valid. (For the formula to be usable, the potentially large variety of factors involved have to be both quantifiable in principle and commensurable, i.e., capable of synthesis into an aggregate value.)

When factors speak for unequal treatment or distribution, because the persons are unequal in relevant respects, the treatment or distribution proportional to these factors is just. Unequal claims to treatment or distribution must be considered proportionally: that is the prerequisite for persons being considered equally.

This principle can also be incorporated into hierarchical, inegalitarian theories. It indicates that equal output is demanded with equal input. Aristocrats, perfectionists, and meritocrats all believe that persons should be assessed according to their differing deserts, understood in the broad sense of fulfillment of some relevant criterion. Reward and punishment, benefits and burdens, should be proportional to such deserts. Since this definition leaves open who is due what, there can be great inequality when it comes to presumed fundamental (natural) rights, deserts, and worth -– this is apparent in both Plato and Aristotle.

Aristotle’s idea of justice as proportional equality contains a fundamental insight. The idea offers a framework for a rational argument between egalitarian and non-egalitarian ideas of justice, its focal point being the question of the basis for an adequate equality (Hinsch 2003). Both sides accept justice as proportional equality. Aristotle’s analysis makes clear that the argument involves those features that decide whether two persons are to be considered equal or unequal in a distributive context.

On the formal level of pure conceptual explication, justice and equality are linked through these formal and proportional principles. Justice cannot be explained without these equality principles, which themselves only receive their normative significance in their role as principles of justice.

Formal and proportional equality is simply a conceptual schema. It needs to be made precise – i.e., its open variables need to be filled out. The formal postulate remains empty as long as it is unclear when, or through what features, two or more persons or cases should be considered equal. All debates over the proper conception of justice – over who is due what – can be understood as controversies over the question of which cases are equal and which unequal (Aristotle, Politics , 1282b 22). For this reason, equality theorists are correct in stressing that the claim that persons are owed equality becomes informative only when one is told what kind of equality they are owed (Nagel 1979; Rae 1981; Sen 1992, p. 13). Every normative theory implies a certain notion of equality. In order to outline their position, egalitarians must thus take account of a specific (egalitarian) conception of equality. To do so, they need to identify substantive principles of equality, which are discussed below.

Until the eighteenth century, it was assumed that human beings are unequal by nature. This postulate collapsed with the advent of the idea of natural right, which assumed a natural order in which all human beings were equal. Against Plato and Aristotle, the classical formula for justice according to which an action is just when it offers each individual his or her due took on a substantively egalitarian meaning in the course of time: everyone deserved the same dignity and respect. This is now the widely held conception of substantive, universal, moral equality. It developed among the Stoics, who emphasized the natural equality of all rational beings, and in early New Testament Christianity, which envisioned that all humans were equal before God, although this principle was not always adhered to in the later history of the church. This important idea was also taken up both in the Talmud and in Islam, where it was grounded in both Greek and Hebraic elements. In the modern period, starting in the seventeenth century, the dominant idea was of natural equality in the tradition of natural law and social contract theory. Hobbes (1651) postulated that in their natural condition, individuals possess equal rights, because over time they have the same capacity to do each other harm. Locke (1690) argued that all human beings have the same natural right to both (self-)ownership and freedom. Rousseau (1755) declared social inequality to be the result of a decline from the natural equality that characterized our harmonious state of nature, a decline catalyzed by the human urge for perfection, property and possessions (Dahrendorf 1962). For Rousseau (1755, 1762), the resulting inequality and rule of violence can only be overcome by binding individual subjectivity to a common civil existence and popular sovereignty. In Kant’s moral philosophy (1785), the categorical imperative formulates the equality postulate of universal human worth. His transcendental and philosophical reflections on autonomy and self-legislation lead to a recognition of the same freedom for all rational beings as the sole principle of human rights (Kant 1797, p. 230). Such Enlightenment ideas stimulated the great modern social movements and revolutions, and were taken up in modern constitutions and declarations of human rights. During the French Revolution, equality, along with freedom and fraternity, became a basis of the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen of 1789.

The principle that holds that human beings, despite their differences, are to be regarded as one another’s equals, is often also called ‘human equality’ or ‘basic equality’ or ‘equal worth’ or ‘human dignity’ (William 1962, Vlastos 1962, Kateb 2014, Waldron 2017, Rosen 2018). Whether these terms are synonyms is a matter of interpretation, but “they cluster together to form a powerful body of principle” (Waldron 2017, p. 3).

This fundamental idea of equal respect for all persons and of the equal worth or equal dignity of all human beings (Vlastos 1962) is widely accepted (Carter 2011, but see also Steinhoff 2015). In a period in which there is not agreement across the members of a complex society to any one metaphysical, religious, or traditional view (Habermas 1983, p. 53, 1992, pp. 39–44), it appears impossible to peacefully reach a general agreement on common political aims without accepting that persons must be treated as equals. As a result, moral equality constitutes the ‘egalitarian plateau’ for all contemporary political theories (Kymlicka 1990, p. 5).

Fundamental equality means that persons are alike in important relevant and specified respects alone, and not that they are all generally the same or can be treated in the same way (Nagel 1991). In a now commonly posed distinction, stemming from Dworkin (1977, p. 227), moral equality can be understood as prescribing treatment of persons as equals, i.e., with equal concern and respect, and not the often implausible principle of providing all persons with equal treatment. Recognizing that human beings are all equally individual does not mean treating them uniformly in any respects other than those in which they clearly have a moral claim to be treated alike.

Disputes arise, of course, concerning what these claims amount to and how they should be resolved. Philosophical debates are concerned with the kind of equal treatment normatively required when we mutually consider ourselves persons with equal dignity. The principle of moral equality is too abstract and needs to be made concrete if we are to arrive at a clear moral standard. Nevertheless, no conception of just equality can be deduced from the notion of moral equality. Rather, we find competing philosophical conceptions of equal treatment serving as interpretations of moral equality. These need to be assessed according to their degree of fidelity to the deeper ideal of moral equality (Kymlicka 1990, p. 44).

Many conceptions of equality operate along procedural lines involving a presumption of equality . More materially concrete, ethical approaches, as described in the next section below, are concerned with distributive criteria – the presumption of equality, in contrast, is a formal, procedural principle of construction located on a higher formal and argumentative level. What is at stake here is the question of the principle with which a material conception of justice should be constructed, particularly once the approaches described above prove inadequate. The presumption of equality is a prima facie principle of equal distribution for all goods politically suited for the process of public distribution. In the domain of political justice, all members of a given community, taken together as a collective body, have to decide centrally on the fair distribution of social goods, as well as on the distribution’s fair realization. Any claim to a particular distribution, including any existing distributive scheme, has to be impartially justified, i.e., no ownership should be recognized without justification. Applied to this political domain, the presumption of equality requires that everyone should get an equal share in the distribution unless certain types of differences are relevant and justify, through universally acceptable reasons, unequal shares. (With different terms and arguments, this principle is conceived as a presumption by Benn & Peters (1959, 111) and by Bedau (1967, 19); as a relevant reasons approach by Williams (1973); as a conception of symmetry by Tugendhat (1993, 374; 1997, chap. 3); as default option by Hinsch (2002, chap. 5); for criticism of the presumption of equality, cf. Westen (1990, chap. 10).) This presumption results in a principle of prima facie equal distribution for all distributable goods. A strict principle of equal distribution is not required, but it is morally necessary to justify impartially any unequal distribution. The burden of proof lies on the side of those who favor any form of unequal distribution. (For a justification of the presumption in favor of equality s. Gosepath 2004, II.8.; Gosepath 2015.)

The presumption of equality provides an elegant procedure for constructing a theory of distributive justice (Gosepath 2004). One has only to analyze what can justify unequal treatment or unequal distribution in different spheres. To put it briefly, the following postulates of equality are at present generally considered morally required.

Strict equality is called for in the legal sphere of civil freedoms, since – putting aside limitation on freedom as punishment – there is no justification for any exceptions. As follows from the principle of formal equality, all citizens must have equal general rights and duties, which are grounded in general laws that apply to all. This is the postulate of legal equality. In addition, the postulate of equal freedom is equally valid: every person should have the same freedom to structure his or her life, and this in the most far-reaching manner possible in a peaceful and appropriate social order.

In the political sphere, the possibilities for political participation should be equally distributed. All citizens have the same claim to participation in forming public opinion, and in the distribution, control, and exercise of political power. This is the postulate – requiring equal opportunity – of equal political power sharing. To ensure equal opportunity, social institutions have to be designed in such a way that persons who are disadvantaged, e.g. have a stutter or a low income, have an equal chance to make their views known and to participate fully in the democratic process.

In the social sphere, equally gifted and motivated citizens must have approximately the same chances to obtain offices and positions, independent of their economic or social class and native endowments. This is the postulate of fair equality of social opportunity. Any unequal outcome must nevertheless result from equality of opportunity, i.e., qualifications alone should be the determining factor, not social background or influences of milieu.

The equality required in the economic sphere is complex, taking account of several positions that – each according to the presumption of equality – justify a turn away from equality. A salient problem here is what constitutes justified exceptions to equal distribution of goods, the main subfield in the debate over adequate conceptions of distributive equality and its currency. The following factors are usually considered eligible for justified unequal treatment: (a) need or differing natural disadvantages (e.g. disabilities); (b) existing rights or claims (e.g. private property); (c) differences in the performance of special services (e.g. desert, efforts, or sacrifices); (d) efficiency; and (e) compensation for direct and indirect or structural discrimination (e.g. affirmative action).

These factors play an essential, albeit varied, role in the following alternative egalitarian theories of distributive justice. These offer different accounts of what should be equalized in the economic sphere. Most can be understood as applications of the presumption of equality (whether they explicitly acknowledge it or not); only a few (like strict equality, libertarianism, and sufficiency) are alternatives to the presumption.

3. Conceptions of Distributive Equality: Equality of What?

Every effort to interpret the concept of equality and to apply the principles of equality mentioned above demands a precise measure of the parameters of equality. We need to know the dimensions within which the striving for equality is morally relevant. What follows is a brief review of the seven most prominent conceptions of distributive equality, each offering a different answer to one question: in the field of distributive justice, what should be equalized, or what should be the parameter or “currency” of equality?

Simple equality, meaning everyone being furnished with the same material level of goods and services, represents a strict position as far as distributive justice is concerned. It is generally rejected as untenable.

Hence, with the possible exception of Babeuf (1796) and Shaw (1928), no prominent author or movement has demanded strict equality. Since egalitarianism has come to be widely associated with the demand for economic equality, and this in turn with communistic or socialistic ideas, it is important to stress that neither communism nor socialism – despite their protest against poverty and exploitation and their demand for social security for all citizens – calls for absolute economic equality. The orthodox Marxist view of economic equality was expounded in the Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). Marx here rejects the idea of legal equality, on three grounds. First, he indicates, equality draws on a limited number of morally relevant perspectives and neglects others, thus having unequal effects. In Marx’s view, the economic structure is the most fundamental basis for the historical development of society, and is thus the point of reference for explaining its features. Second, theories of justice have concentrated excessively on distribution instead of the basic questions of production. Third, a future communist society needs no law and no justice, since social conflicts will have vanished.

As an idea, simple equality fails because of problems that are raised in regards to equality in general. It is useful to review these problems, as they require resolution in any plausible approach to equality.

(i) We need adequate indices for the measurement of the equality of the goods to be distributed. Through what concepts should equality and inequality be understood? It is thus clear that equality of material goods can lead to unequal satisfaction. Money constitutes a typical, though inadequate, index; at the very least, equal opportunity has to be conceived in other terms.

(ii) The time span needs to be indicated for realizing the desired model of equal distribution (McKerlie 1989, Sikora 1989). Should we seek to equalize the goods in question over complete individual lifetimes, or should we seek to ensure that various life segments are as equally provisioned as possible?

(iii) Equality distorts incentives promoting achievement in the economic field, and the administrative costs of redistribution produce wasteful inefficiencies (Okun 1975). Equality and efficiency need to be balanced. Often, Pareto-optimality is demanded in this respect, usually by economists. A social condition is Pareto-optimal or Pareto-efficient when it is not possible to shift to another condition judged better by at least one person and worse by none (Sen 1970, chap. 2, 2*). A widely discussed alternative to the Pareto principle is the Kaldor-Hicks welfare criterion. This stipulates that a rise in social welfare is always present when the benefits accruing through the distribution of value in a society exceed the corresponding costs. A change thus becomes desirable when the winners in such a change could compensate the losers for their losses, and still retain a substantial profit. In contrast to the Pareto-criterion, the Kaldor-Hicks criterion contains a compensation rule (Kaldor 1939). For purposes of economic analysis, such theoretical models of optimal efficiency make a great deal of sense. However, the analysis is always made relative to a starting situation that can itself be unjust and unequal. A society can thus be (close to) Pareto-optimality – i.e., no one can increase his or her material goods or freedoms without diminishing those of someone else – while also displaying enormous inequalities in the distribution of the same goods and freedoms. For this reason, egalitarians claim that it may be necessary to reduce Pareto-optimality for the sake of justice, if there is no more egalitarian distribution that is also Pareto-optimal. In the eyes of their critics, equality of whatever kind should not lead to some people having to make do with less, when this equalizing down does not benefit any of those who are in a worse position.

(iv) Moral objections : A strict and mechanical equal distribution between all individuals does not sufficiently take into account the differences among individuals and their situations. In essence, since individuals desire different things, why should everyone receive the same goods? Intuitively, for example, we can recognize that a sick person has other claims than a healthy person, and furnishing each with the same goods would be mistaken. With simple equality, personal freedoms are unacceptably limited and distinctive individual qualities insufficiently acknowledged; in this way they are in fact unequally regarded. Furthermore, persons not only have a moral right to their own needs being considered, but a right and a duty to take responsibility for their own decisions and the resulting consequences.

Working against the identification of distributive justice with simple equality, a basic postulate of many present-day egalitarians is as follows: human beings are themselves responsible for certain inequalities resulting from their free decisions; aside from minimum aid in emergencies, they deserve no recompense for such inequalities (but cf. relational egalatarians, discussed in Section 4 ). On the other hand, they are due compensation for inequalities that are not the result of self-chosen options. For egalitarians, the world is morally better when equality of life conditions prevail. This is an amorphous ideal demanding further clarification. Why is such equality an ideal, and what precise currency of equality does it involve?

By the same token, most egalitarians do not advocate an equality of outcome, but different kinds of equality of opportunity, due to their emphasis on a pair of morally central points: that individuals are responsible for their decisions, and that the only things to be considered objects of equality are those which serve the real interests of individuals. The opportunities to be equalized between people can be opportunities for well-being (i.e. objective welfare), or for preference satisfaction (i.e., subjective welfare), or for resources. It is not equality of objective or subjective well-being or resources themselves that should be equalized, but an equal opportunity to gain the well-being or resources one aspires to. Such equality depends on their being a realm of options for each individual equal to the options enjoyed by all other persons, in the sense of the same prospects for fulfillment of preferences or the possession of resources. The opportunity must consist of possibilities one can really take advantage of. Equal opportunity prevails when human beings effectively enjoy equal realms of possibility.

(v) Simple equality is very often associated with equality of results (although these are two distinct concepts). However, to strive only for equality of results is problematic. To illustrate the point, let us briefly limit the discussion to a single action and the event or state of affairs resulting from it. Arguably, actions should not be judged solely by the moral quality of their results, as important as this may be. One must also consider the way in which the events or circumstances to be evaluated have come about. Generally speaking, a moral judgement requires not only the assessment of the results of the action in question (the consequentialist aspect) but, first and foremost, the assessment of the intention of the actor (the deontological aspect). The source and its moral quality influence the moral judgement of the results (Pogge 1999, sect. V). For example, if you strike me, your blow will hurt me; the pain I feel may be considered bad in itself, but the moral status of your blow will also depend on whether you were (morally) allowed such a gesture (perhaps through parental status, although that is controversial) or even obliged to execute it (e.g. as a police officer preventing me from doing harm to others), or whether it was in fact prohibited but not prevented. What is true of individual actions (or their omission) has to be true mutatis mutandis of social institutions and circumstances like distributions resulting from collective social actions (or their omission). Social institutions should therefore be assessed not only on the basis of information about how they affect individual quality of life. A society in which people starve on the streets is certainly marked by inequality; nevertheless, its moral quality, i.e., whether the society is just or unjust with regard to this problem, also depends on the suffering’s causes. Does the society allow starvation as an unintended but tolerable side effect of what its members see as a just distributive scheme? Indeed, does it even defend the suffering as a necessary means, as with forms of Social Darwinism? Or has the society taken measures against starvation which have turned out to be insufficient? In the latter case, whether the society has taken such steps for reasons of political morality or efficiency again makes a moral difference. Hence even for egalitarians, equality of results is too narrow and one-sided a focus.

(vi) Finally, there is a danger of (strict) equality leading to uniformity, rather than to a respect for pluralism and democracy (Cohen 1989; Arneson 1993). In the contemporary debate, this complaint has been mainly articulated in feminist and multiculturalist theory. A central tenet of feminist theory is that gender has been and remains a historically variable and internally differentiated relation of domination. The same holds for so-called racial and ethnic differences, which are often still conceived of as marking different values. The different groups involved here rightly object to their discrimination, marginalization, and domination, and an appeal to equality of status thus seems a solution. However, as feminists and multiculturalists have pointed out, equality, as usually understood and practiced, is constituted in part by a denial and ranking of differences; as a result it seems less useful as an antidote to relations of domination. “Equality” can often mean the assimilation to a pre-existing and problematic ‘male’ or ‘white’ or ‘middle class’ norm. In short, domination and a fortiori inequality often arises out of an inability to appreciate and nurture differences, not out of a failure to see everyone as the same. To recognize these differences should however not lead to an essentialism grounded in sexual or cultural characteristics. There is a crucial debate between those who insist that sexual, racial, and ethnic differences should become irrelevant, on the one hand, and those believing that such differences, even though culturally relevant, should not furnish a basis for inequality: that one should rather find mechanisms for securing equality, despite valued differences. Neither of these strategies involves rejecting equality. The dispute is about how equality is to be attained (McKinnon 1989, Taylor 1992).

Proposing a connection between equality and pluralism, Michael Walzer’s theory (1983) aims at what he calls “complex equality”. According to Walzer, relevant reasons can only speak in favor of distributing specific types of goods in specific spheres, not in several or all spheres. Against a theory of simple equality promoting equal distribution of dominant goods, which underestimates the complexity of the criteria at work in each given sphere, the dominance of particular goods needs to be ended. For instance, purchasing power in the political sphere through means derived from the economic sphere (i.e., money) must be prevented. Walzer’s theory of complex equality is not actually aimed at equality per se, but at the separation of spheres of justice; the theory’s designation is misleading. Any theory of equality should, however, as per Walzer, avoid monistic conceptions and recognize instead the complexity of life and the plurality of criteria for justice.

The preceding considerations yield the following desideratum: instead of simple equality, a more complex equality needs to be conceptualized. That concept should resolve the problems discussed above through a distinction of various classes of goods, a separation of spheres, and a differentiation of relevant criteria.

Libertarianism and economic liberalism represent minimalist positions in relation to distributive justice. Citing Locke, they both postulate an original right to freedom and property, thus arguing against redistribution and social rights and for the free market (Nozick 1974; Hayek 1960). They assert an opposition between equality and freedom: the individual (natural) right to freedom can be limited only for the sake of foreign and domestic peace. For this reason, libertarians consider maintaining public order the state’s only legitimate duty. They assert a natural right to self-ownership (the philosophical term for “ownership of oneself” – i.e., one’s will, body, work, etc.) that entitles everybody to hitherto unowned bits of the external world by means of mixing their labor with it. All individuals can thus claim property if “enough and as good” is left over for others (Locke’s proviso). Correspondingly, they defend market freedoms and oppose the use of redistributive taxation schemes for the sake of egalitarian social justice. A principal objection to libertarian theory is that its interpretation of the Lockean proviso – nobody’s situation should be worsened through an initial acquisition of property – leads to an excessively weak requirement and is thus unacceptable (Kymlicka 1990, pp.108–117). However, with a broader and more adequate interpretation of what it means for one a situation to be worse than another, it is much more difficult to justify private appropriation and, a fortiori , all further ownership rights. If the proviso recognizes the full range of interests and alternatives that self-owners have, then it will not generate unrestricted rights over unequal amounts of resources. Another objection is that precisely if one’s own free accomplishment is what is meant to count, as the libertarians argue, success should not depend strictly on luck, extraordinary natural gifts, inherited property, and status. In other words, equal opportunity also needs to at least be present as a counterbalance, ensuring that the fate of human beings is determined by their decisions and not by unavoidable social circumstances. Equal opportunity thus seems to be the frequently vague minimal formula at work in every egalitarian conception of distributive justice. Many egalitarians, however, wish for more – namely, an equality of (at least basic) life conditions .

In any event, with a shift away from a strictly negative idea of freedom, economic liberalism can indeed itself point the way to more social and economic equality. For with such a shift, what is at stake is not only assuring an equal right to self-defense, but also furnishing everyone more or less the same chance to actually make use of the right to freedom (e.g. Van Parijs 1995, Steiner 1994, Otsuka 2005). In other words, certain basic goods need to be furnished to assure the equitable or “fair value of the basic liberties” (Rawls 1993, pp. 356–63).

It is possible to interpret utilitarianism as concretizing moral equality – and this in a way meant to offer the same consideration to the interests of all human beings (Kymlicka 1990, pp. 31f., Hare 1981, p. 26, Sen 1992, pp. 13f.). From the utilitarian perspective, since everyone counts as one and no one as more than one (Bentham), the interests of all should be treated equally without consideration of contents of interest or an individual’s material situation. For utilitarianism, this means that all enlightened personal interests have to be fairly aggregated. The morally proper action is the one that maximizes utility (Hare 1984). This conception of equal treatment has been criticized as inadequate by many opponents of utilitarianism. At least in utilitarianism’s classical form – so the critique reads – the hoped for moral equality is flawed, because all desires are taken up by the utilitarian calculation, including “selfish” and “external” preferences (Dworkin 1977, p. 234) that are meant to all have equal weight, even when they diminish the ‘rights’ and intentions of others. This conflicts with our everyday understanding of equal treatment. What is here at play is an argument involving “offensive” and “expensive” taste: a person cannot expect others to sustain his or her desires at the expense of their own (Kymlicka 1990, p. 40 f.). Rather, according to generally shared conviction, equal treatment consistently requires a basis of equal rights and resources that cannot be taken away from one person, whatever the desire of others. In line with Rawls (1971, pp. 31, 564, cf. 450), many hold that justice entails according no value to interests insofar as they conflict with justice. According to this view, unjustified preferences will not distort the mutual claims people have on each other. Equal treatment has to consist of everyone being able to claim a fair portion, and not in all interests having the same weight in disposal over my portion. Utilitarians cannot admit any restrictions on interests based on morals or justice. As long as utilitarian theory lacks a concept of justice and fair allocation, it must fail in its goal of treating everyone as equals. As Rawls (1971, pp. 27) also famously argues, utilitarianism that involves neglecting the separateness of persons does not contain a proper interpretation of moral equality as equal respect for each individual.

The concept of welfare equality is motivated by an intuition that when it comes to political ethics, what is at stake is individual well-being. The central criterion for justice must consequently be equalizing the level of welfare. But taking welfare as what is to be equalized leads to difficulties resembling those of utilitarianism. If one contentiously identifies subjective welfare with preference satisfaction, it seems implausible to count all individual preferences as equal, some – such as the desire to do others wrong – being inadmissible on grounds of justice (the offensive taste argument). Any welfare-centered concept of equality grants people with refined and expensive taste more resources – something distinctly at odds with our moral intuitions (the expensive taste argument) (Dworkin 1981a). However, satisfaction in the fulfillment of desires cannot serve as a standard, since we wish for more than a simple feeling of happiness. A more viable standard for welfare comparisons would seem to be success in the fulfillment of preferences. A fair evaluation of such success cannot be purely subjective, but requires a standard of what should or could have been achieved. This itself involves an assumption regarding just distribution, so it cannot stand as an independent criterion for justice. Another serious problem with any welfare-centered concept of equality is that it cannot take account of either desert (Feinberg 1970) or personal responsibility for one’s own well-being, to the extent this is possible and reasonable.

Represented above all by both Rawls and Dworkin, resource equality avoids such problems (Rawls 1971; Dworkin 1981b). It holds individuals responsible for their decisions and actions, but not for circumstances beyond their control, such as race, sex, skin-color, intelligence, and social position, thus excluding these as distributive criteria. Equal opportunity is insufficient because it does not compensate for unequal innate gifts. What applies for social circumstances should also apply for such gifts, as both are purely arbitrary from a moral point of view.

According to Rawls, human beings should have the same initial expectations of “basic goods,” i.e., all-purpose goods; this in no way precludes ending up with different quantities of such goods or resources, as a result of personal economic decisions and actions. When prime importance is accorded an assurance of equal basic freedoms and rights, inequalities are just when they fulfill two provisos: on the one hand, they have to be linked to offices and positions open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; on the other hand, they have to reflect the famous ‘difference principle’ in offering the greatest possible advantage to the least advantaged members of society (Rawls 1993, p. 5 f.; 1971, § 13). Otherwise, the economic order requires revision. Due to the argument of the moral arbitrariness of talents, the commonly accepted criteria for merit (like productivity, working hours, effort) are clearly relativized. The difference principle only allows the talented to earn more to the extent this raises the lowest incomes. According to Rawls, with regard to the basic structure of society, the difference principle should be opted for under a self-chosen “veil of ignorance” regarding personal and historical circumstances and similar factors: the principle offers a general assurance of not totally succumbing to the hazards of a free market situation; and everyone does better than with inevitably inefficient total equal distribution, whose level of well-being is below that of those worst off under the difference principle.

Since Rawls’ Theory of Justice is the classical focal point of present-day political philosophy, it is worth noting the different ways his theory claims to be egalitarian. First, Rawls upholds a natural basis for equal human worth: a minimal capacity for having a conception of the good and a sense of justice. Second, through the device of the “veil of ignorance,” people are conceived as equals in the “original position.” Third, the idea of sharing this “original position” presupposes the parties having political equality, as equal participants in the process of choosing the principles by which they would be governed. Fourth, Rawls proposes fair equality of opportunity. Fifth, he maintains that all desert must be institutionally defined, depending on the goals of the society. No one deserves his or her talents or circumstances, which are products of the natural lottery. Finally, the difference principle tends toward equalizing holdings. However, it is important to keep in mind, as Scheffler (2003) has pointed out, that the main focus of Rawls’ theory is justice as such; it is only secondarily about an egalitarian conception of justice. In addition, since the primary subject is the basic structure, pure procedural justice has priority over distributive or allocative justice Equality is not the only or single value for Rawls.

Dworkin’s equality of resources (1981b), on the other hand, is concerned with equality as such. His theory stakes a claim to being even more ‘ambition- and endowment-insensitive’ than Rawls’ theory. Unequal distribution of resources is considered fair only when it results from the decisions and intentional actions of those concerned. Dworkin proposes a hypothetical auction in which everyone can accumulate bundles of resources through equal means of payment, so that in the end no one is jealous of another’s bundle (the envy test). The auction-procedure also offers a way to precisely measure equality of resources: the measure of resources devoted to a person’s life is defined by the importance of the resources to others (Dworkin 1981b, p. 290). In the free market, how the distribution then develops depends on an individual’s ambitions. The inequalities that thus emerge are justified, since one has to take responsibility for how one’s choices turn out (i.e., one’s “option luck”) in the realm of personal responsibility. In contrast, unjustified inequalities based on different innate provisions and gifts, as well as on brute luck, should be compensated for through a fictive differentiated insurance system: its premiums are established behind Dworkin’s own “veil of ignorance,” in order to then be distributed in real life to everyone and collected in taxes. For Dworkin, this is the key to the natural lottery being balanced fairly, preventing a “slavery of the talented” through excessive redistribution.

Only some egalitarians hold inequality to be bad per se. Most of today’s egalitarians are pluralistic, recognizing other values besides equality. So called luck-egalitarians regard the moral significance of choice and responsibility as one of the most important values besides equality (for an overview over the debate see Lippert-Rasmussen 2015). They hold that it is bad – unjust or unfair – for some to be worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own (Temkin 1993, 13) and therefore strive to eliminate involuntary disadvantages, for which the sufferer cannot be held responsible (Cohen 1989, 916).

The principle of responsibility provides a central normative vantage point for deciding on which grounds one might justify which inequality. The positive formulation of the responsibility principle requires an assumption of personal responsibility and holds that inequalities which are the result of self-chosen options are just. (See above all Dworkin, 1981b, p. 311; contra: Anderson, 1999.) Unequal portions of social goods are thus fair when they result from the decisions and intentional actions of those concerned. Individuals must accept responsibility for the costs of their decisions. Persons are themselves responsible for certain inequalities that result from their voluntary decisions, and they deserve no compensation for such inequalities, aside from minimal provisions in cases of dire need (see below). In its negative formulation , the responsibility principle holds that inequalities which are not the result of self-chosen options are to be rejected as unjust; persons disadvantaged in this way deserve compensation. That which one can do nothing about, or for which one is not responsible, cannot constitute a relevant criterion. Still, the initial assumption remains an ascription of responsibility, and each individual case requires close scrutiny: one is responsible and accountable unless there is an adequate reason for being considered otherwise (but cf. Stemplowska 2013 for a different interpretation)..

If advantages or disadvantages that are due to arbitrary and unearned differences are unfair, this holds for social circumstances as well as natural endowments. The reasons favoring an exclusion of features like skin-color, size, sex, and place of origin as primarily discriminative apply equally to other natural human qualities, like intelligence, appearance, physical strength, and so forth. The kind and the extent of one’s natural abilities are due to a lottery of nature; considered from a moral standpoint, their distribution is purely arbitrary (Rawls, 1971, § 48). To sum up: natural and social endowment must not count, and personal intentions and voluntary decisions should count. Thus, a given social order is just when it equalizes as much as possible, and in a normatively tenable way, all personal disadvantages for which an individual is not responsible, and accords individuals the capacity to bear the consequences of their decisions and actions, as befits their capacity for autonomy.

Objections to all versions of “brute-luck egalitarianism” come from two sides. Some authors criticize its in their view unjustified or excessively radical rejection of merit: The luck-egalitarian thesis of desert only being justifiably acknowledged if it involves desert “all the way down” (Nozick 1974, p. 225) not only destroys the classical, everyday principle of desert, since everything has a basis that we ourselves have not created. In the eyes of such critics, along with the merit-principle this argument also destroys our personal identity, since we can no longer accredit ourselves with our own capacities and accomplishments. (Cf. the texts in Pojman & McLeod 1998, Olsaretti 2003.) Other authors consider the criterion for responsibility to be too strong, indeed inhuman (or “harsh”) in its consequences, since human beings responsible for their own misery would (supposedly) be left alone with their misery (Anderson 1999, also MacLeod 1998, Scheffler 2003, Wolff 1998, Fleurbaey 1995, Voigt 2007, Eyal 2017, Olsaretti 2009, Stemplowska 2009). However, pluralistic egalitarians should be able to argue that there are special cases, in which people are so badly off that they should be helped, even if they got into the miserable situation through their own fault. But even when people are in terrible situations, which did not arise through their own fault (‘bad brute luck’) – for instance, when they are disabled from birth – and egalitarians therefore have reasons to help them, these reasons are supposedly stigmatizing, since in these cases the principles of distribution would be based on pity. In these cases, political institutions have to take certain decisions – for example, in which category a particular case of distress should be placed – and gather relevant information on their citizens. Against such a procedure, one could object that it subjects the citizens to the tutelage of the state and harms their private sphere (Anderson 1999, also Hayek 1960: 85–102).

Approaches based on equality of opportunity can be read as revisions of both welfarism and resourcism. Ranged against welfarism and designed to avoid its pitfalls, they incorporate the powerful ideas of choice and responsibility into various, improved forms of egalitarianism. Such approaches are meant to equalize outcomes resulting from causes beyond a person’s control (i.e., beyond circumstances or endowment), but to allow differential outcomes that result from autonomous choice or ambition. But the approaches are also aimed at maintaining the insight that individual preferences have to count, as the sole basis for a necessary linkage back to the individual perspective: otherwise, there is an overlooking of the person’s value. In Arneson’s (1989, 1990) concept of equal opportunity for welfare , the preferences determining the measure of individual well-being are meant to be conceived hypothetically – i.e., a person would decide on them after a process of ideal reflection. In order to correspond to the morally central vantage of personal responsibility, what should be equalized are not enlightened preferences themselves, but rather real opportunities to achieve or receive a good, to the extent that it is aspired to. G.A. Cohen’s (1989, p. 916 f.) broader conception of equality of access to advantage attempts to integrate the perspectives of welfare equality and resource equality through the overriding concept of advantage. For Cohen, there are two grounds for egalitarian compensation. Egalitarians will be moved to furnish a paralyzed person with a compensatory wheelchair independently of the person’s welfare level. This egalitarian response to disability overrides equality of (opportunity to) welfare. Egalitarians also favor compensation for phenomena such as pain, independent of any loss of capacity – for instance by paying for expensive medicine. But, Cohen claims, any justification for such compensation has to invoke the idea of equality of opportunity to welfare. He thus views both aspects, resources and welfare, as necessary and irreducible. Much of Roemer’s (1998) more technical argument is devoted to constructing the scale to calibrate the extent to which something is the result of circumstances. An incurred adverse consequence is the result of circumstances, not choice, precisely to the extent that it is a consequence that persons of one or another specific type can be expected to incur.

Theories that limit themselves to the equal distribution of basic means, in the hope of doing justice to the different goals of all human beings, are often criticized as fetishistic, because they focus on means as opposed to what individuals gain with these means (Sen 1980). The value that goods have for someone depends on objective possibilities, the natural environment, and individual capacities. Hence, in contrast to the resourcist approach, Amartya Sen proposes orientating distribution around “capabilities to achieve functionings,” i.e., the various things that a person manages to do orbe in leading a life (Sen 1992). In other words, evaluating individual well-being has to be tied to a capability for achieving and maintaining various precious conditions and “functionings” constitutive of a person’s being, such as adequate nourishment, good health, the ability to move about freely or to appear in public without shame. The real freedom to acquire well-being is also important here, a freedom represented in the capability to oneself choose forms of achievement and the combination of “functionings.” For Sen, capabilities are thus the measure of an equality of capabilities human beings enjoy to lead their lives. A problem consistently raised with capability approaches is the ability to weigh capabilities in order to arrive at a metric for equality. The problem is intensified by the fact that various moral perspectives are blended in the concept of capability (Cohen 1993, p. 17–26, Williams 1987). Martha Nussbaum (1992, 2000) has linked the capability approach to an Aristotelian, essentialistic, “thick” theory of the good – a theory meant to be, as she puts it, “vague,” incomplete, and open-ended enough to leave place for individual and cultural variation. On the basis of such a “thick” conception of necessary and universal elements of a good life, certain capabilities and functionings can be designated as foundational. In this manner, Nussbaum can endow the capability approach with a precision that furnishes an index of interpersonal comparison, but at the risk of not being neutral enough regarding the plurality of personal conceptions of the good, a neutrality normally required by most liberals (most importantly Rawls 1993; but see Robeyns 2009 for a different take on the comparison with Rawls). For further discussion, see the entry on the capability approach .

Since the late 1990s, social relations egalitarianism has appeared in philosophical discourse as an increasingly important competitor to distribuitivist accounts of justice, especially its luck egalitarian versions (cf. Lippert-Rassmussen 2018). Proponents of social relations egalitarianism include Anderson (1999), Miller (1997), Scanlon (1996, 2018), Scheffler (2003, 2005, 2015), Wolff (1998, 2010) and Young (1990). Negatively, they are united in a rejection of the view that justice is a matter of eliminating differential luck. Positively, they claim that society is just if, and only if, individuals within it relate to one another as equals. Accordingly, the site of justice (i.e. that to which principles of justice apply) is society, not distributions. Relational Egalitarianism has a certain overlap with many theories of recognition and non-domination. Certain status differences are at the core of their objections, like those stigmatizing differences in status, whereby the badly off are caused to experience themselves as inferior, and are treated as inferiors, or when inequalities create objectionable relations of power(Honneth/Fraser 2003) and domination (Pettit 2001).

What does it mean that (and when do) individuals within a society relate to one another as equals? Racial discrimination, for example, is a paradigmatic instance of this condition?s violation. But once we move beyond a handful of such examples things become much less clear.

These claims to social and political equality exclude all unequal, hierarchical forms of social relationships, in which some people dominate, exploit, marginalize, demean, and inflict violence upon others:

As a social ideal, it holds that a human society must be conceived of as a cooperative arrangement among equals, each of whom enjoys the same social standing. As a political ideal, it highlights the claims that citizens are entitled to make on one another by virtue of their status as citizens, without any need for a moralized accounting of the details of their particular circumstances. (Scheffler 2003, p. 22)

However, forms of differentiation that do not violate moral equality (see above) are not per se excluded from social equality, if they are compatible with the recognition of the equal social status of concerned parties, as with differences relating to merit, need, and, if appropriate, race, gender, and social background (as in cases of affirmative action or fair punishment).

Where there is social equality, people feel that each member of the community enjoys an equal standing with all the rest that overrides their unequal ratings along particular dimensions. (Miller, 1997, p. 232)

Thus the question has to be answered whether – and if so, why – other dimensions, such as a person’s natural talents, creativity, intelligence, innovative skills or entrepreneurial ability, can be the basis for legitimate inequalities.

Relational egalitarians need a certain conception of what an equal standing in society amounts to and implies in terms of rights and goods. One way to offer such an account would be to rely (like Anderson 1999) on the capabilities approach (§3.8) and sufficitarianism (§6.2.): In a democratic community that preserves the free and equal status of persons, at least three sets of conditions have to be fulfilled.

First, certain political conditions are necessary to allow citizens to participate as equals in democratic deliberation. These include, among others, the capabilities to vote, hold office, assemble, petition the government, speak freely, and move about freely (Rawls 1999, p.53). The principle of democratic equality (as asked for by Anderson 1999) requires us to eliminate social hierarchies that prevent a democratically organized society, a society in which we cooperate and decide upon state action as equals. Persons morally owe each other the capabilities and conditions to live as equals in a democratic community (Christiano 2008, Kolodny 2014). Democracy can be interpreted as realizing public equality in collective decision-making.

Second, to participate as an equal in civil society, certain civil conditions must obtain. These include the conditions that make it robustly likely that injustices such as marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism (Anderson 1999 with reference to Young 1990), or domination (Pettit 2001) can be to avoided. Third, certain social conditions and personal capabilities have to obtain that enable people to enjoy equal standing in society. Citizens need, in this regard, adequate nutrition, shelter, clothing, education, and medical care. This last point leads into the debate over whether a relational egalitarian conception of social justice yields intrinsic and instrumental reasons of justice to care about distributive inequality in socially produced goods, despite its emphasis on just social relationships and not the distribution of goods per se (Schemmel 2011, Elford 2017).

Justice is primarily related to individual actions. Individual persons are the primary bearers of responsibility (the key principle of ethical individualism). This raises two controversial issues in the contemporary debate.

One could regard the norms of distributive equality as applying to groups rather than individuals. It is often groups that rightfully raise the issue of an inequality between themselves and the rest of society, as with women and racial and ethnic groups. The question arises of whether inequality among such groups should be considered morally objectionable in itself, or whether even in the case of groups, the underlying concern should be how individuals (as members of such groups) fare in comparative terms. If there is a worry about inequalities between groups of individuals, why does this not translate into a worry about inequalities between members of the group?

A further question concerns whether the norms of distributive equality (whatever they are) apply to all individuals, regardless of where (and when) they live. Or rather, do they only hold for members of communities within states and nations? Most theories of equality deal exclusively with distributive equality among people in a single society. There does not, however, seem to be any rationale for that limitation. Can the group of the entitled be restricted prior to the examination of concrete claims? Many theories seem to imply this, especially when they connect distributive justice or the goods to be distributed with social cooperation or production. For those who contribute nothing to cooperation, such as the disabled, children, or future generations, would have to be denied a claim to a fair share. The circle of persons who are to be the recipients of distribution would thus be restricted from the outset. Other theories are less restrictive, insofar as they do not link distribution to actual social collaboration, yet nonetheless do restrict it, insofar as they bind it to the status of citizenship. In this view, distributive justice is limited to the individuals within a society. Those outside the community have no entitlement to social justice. Unequal distribution among states and the social situations of people outside the particular society could not, in this view, be a problem of social distributive justice (Nagel 2005). Yet here too, the universal morality of equal respect and the principle of equal distribution demand that all persons consider one another as prima facie equally entitled to the goods, unless reasons for an unequal distribution can be advanced. It may be that in the process of justification, reasons will emerge for privileging those who were particularly involved in the production of a good, but there is no prima facie reason to exclude from the outset other persons, such as those from other countries, from the process of distribution and justification (Pogge 2002). That may seem most intuitively plausible in the case of natural resources (e.g. oil) that someone discovers by chance on or beneath the surface of his or her property. Why should such resources belong to the person who discovers them, or on whose property they are located? Nevertheless, in the eyes of many if not most people, global justice, i.e., extending egalitarian distributive justice globally, demands too much from individuals and their states (Miller 1998; but cf. Caney 2005). Alternatively, one might argue that there are other ‘special relations’ between members of one society that do not exist between members of different societies. Nationalism is an example for such a (controversial) thesis that may provide a case for a kind of local equality (Miller 1995). For further discussion, see the entry on global justice.

Another issue is the relationship between generations. Does the present generation have an egalitarian obligation towards future generations regarding equal living conditions? One argument in favor of this conclusion might be that people should not end up unequally well off as a result of morally arbitrary factors. However, the issue of justice between generation is notoriously complex (Temkin 1992). For further discussion, see the entry on intergenerational justice .

6. The Value of Equality: Why Equality?

Does equality play a major role in a theory of justice, and if so, what is this role? A conception of justice is egalitarian when it views equality as a fundamental goal of justice. Temkin has put it as follows:

… an egalitarian is any person who attaches some value to equality itself (that is, any person that cares at all about equality, over and above the extent it promotes other ideals). So, equality needn’t be the only value, or even the ideal she values most… . Egalitarians have the deep and (for them) compelling view that it is a bad thing – unjust and unfair – for some to be worse off than others through no fault of their own. (Temkin 1986, p. 100, cf. 1993, p. 7)

In general, the focus of the modern egalitarian effort to realize equality is on the possibility of a good life, i.e., on an equality of life prospects and life circumstances – interpreted in various ways according to various positions in the “equality of what” debate (see above).

It is apparent that there are three sorts of egalitarianism: intrinsic, instrumental and constitutive. (For a twofold distinction cf. Parfit 1997, Temkin 1993, p. 11, McKerlie, 1996, p. 275.)

Intrinsic egalitarians view equality as a good in itself. As pure egalitarians, they are concerned solely with equality, most of them with equality of social circumstances, according to which it is intrinsically bad if some people are worse off than others through no fault of their own. But it is in fact the case that people do not always consider inequality a moral evil. Intrinsic egalitarians regarde quality as desirable even when the equalization would be of no use to any of the affected parties, such as when equality can only be produced through depressing the level of well being of everyone’s life. But something can only have an intrinsic value when it is good for at least one person, when it makes one life better in some way or another.

The following “ leveling-down ” objection indicates that doing away within equality in fact ought to produce better circumstances; it is otherwise unclear why equality should be desired. (For such an objection, cf. Nozick 1974, p. 229, Raz 1986, chap. 9, p. 227, 235, Temkin 1993, pp. 247–8.) Sometimes inequality can only be ended by depriving those who are better off of their resources, rendering them as poorly off as everyone else. (For anyone looking for a drastic literary example, Kurt Vonnegut’s 1950 science-fiction story Harrison Bergeron is recommended.) This would have to be an acceptable approach according to the intrinsic conception. But would it be morally good if, in a group consisting of both blind and sighted persons, those with sight were rendered blind because the blind could not be offered sight? That would be morally perverse. Doing away with inequality by bringing everyone down contains – so the objection goes – nothing good. Such leveling-down objections would of course only be valid if there were indeed no better and equally egalitarian alternatives available, but there are nearly always such alternatives: e.g. those who can see should have to help the blind, financially or otherwise. When there are no alternatives, in order to avoid such objections, intrinsic egalitarianism cannot be strict, but needs to be pluralistic . Then intrinsic egalitarians could say there is something good about the change, namely greater equality, although they would concede that much is bad about it. Pluralistic egalitarians do not have equality as their only goal; they also admit other values and principles, above all the principle of welfare, according to which it is better when people are doing better. In addition, pluralistic egalitarianism should be moderate enough to not always grant equality victory in the case of conflict between equality and welfare. Instead, they must accept reductions in equality for the sake of a higher quality of life for all (as with Rawls’ difference principle).

At present, many egalitarians are ready to concede that equality in the sense of equality of life circumstances has no compelling value in itself, but that, in a framework of liberal concepts of justice, its meaning emerges in pursuit of other ideals, like universal freedom, the full development of human capacities and the human personality, the mitigation of suffering and defeat of domination and stigmatization, the stable coherence of modern and freely constituted societies, and so forth (Scanlon 1996, 2018). For those who are worse off, unequal circumstances often mean considerable (relative) disadvantages and many (absolute) evils; as a rule, these (relative) disadvantages and (absolute) evils are the source of our moral condemnation of unequal circumstances. But this does not mean that inequality as such is an evil. Hence, the argument goes, fundamental moral ideals other than equality stand behind our aspiring for equality. To reject inequality on such grounds is to favor equality either as a byproduct or as a means, and not as a goal or intrinsic value. In its treatment of equality as a derived virtue, the sort of egalitarianism – if the term is actually suitable – here at play is instrumental .

As indicated, there is also a third, more suitable approach to the equality ideal: a constitutive egalitarianism. According to this approach, to the aspiration to equality is rooted in other moral grounds, namely because certain inequalities are unjust. Equality has value, but this is an extrinsic value, since it derives from another, higher moral principle of equal dignity and respect. But it is not instrumental for this reason, i.e., it is not only valued on account of moral equality, but also on its own account. (For the distinction between the origin of a value and the kind of value it is, cf. Korsgaard 1996.) Equality stands in relation to justice as does a part to a whole. The requirement of justification is based on moral equality, and in certain contexts, successful justification leads to the above-named principles of equality, i.e., formal, proportional equality and the presumption of equality. Thus, according to constitutive egalitarianism, these principles and the resulting equality are required by justice, and by the same token constitute social justice.

It is important to further distinguish two levels of egalitarianism and non-egalitarianism, respectively. On a first level, a constitutive egalitarian presumes that every explication of the moral standpoint is incomplete without terms such as ‘equal,’ ‘similarly,’ etc. In contrast, a non-egalitarianism operating on the same level considers such terms misplaced or redundant. On a second level, when it comes to concretizing and specifying conceptions of justice, a constitutive egalitarian gives equality substantive weight. On this level, more and less egalitarian positions can be found, according to the chosen currency of equality (the criteria by which just equality is measured) and according to the reasons for unequal distributions (exemptions of the presumption of equality) that the respective theories regard as well grounded. Egalitarianism on the second level thus relates to the kind, quality and quantity of things to be equalized. Because of such variables, a clear-cut definition of second level egalitarianism cannot be formulated. In contrast, non-egalitarians on this second level advocate a non-relational entitlement theory of justice.

Alongside the often-raised objections against equality mentioned in the section on “simple equality” (3.1. above) there is a different and more fundamental critique formulated by first level non-egalitarians: that equality does not have a foundational role in the grounding of claims to justice. While the older version of a critique of egalitarianism comes mainly from the conservative end of the political spectrum, thus arguing in general against “patterned principles of justice” (Nozick 1974, esp. pp. 156–157), the critique’s newer version also often can be heard in progressive circles (Walzer 1983, Raz 1986, chap. 9, Frankfurt 1987, 1997, Parfit 1997, Anderson 1999). This first-level critique of equality poses the basic question of why justice should in fact be conceived relationally and (what is here the same) comparatively. Referring back to Joel Feinberg’s (1974) distinction between comparative and non-comparative justice, non-egalitarians object to the moral requirement to treat people as equals, and the many demands for justice emerging from it. They argue that neither the postulate nor these demands involve comparative principles, let alone any equality principles. They reproach first-level egalitarians for a confusion between “equality” and “universals.” As the non-egalitarians see things, within many principles of justice – at least the especially important ones – the equality-terminology is redundant. Equality is thus merely a byproduct of the general fulfillment of actually non-comparative standards of justice: something obscured through the unnecessary insertion of an expression of equality (Raz 1986, p. 227f.). At least the central standards of dignified human life are not relational but “absolute.” As Harry Frankfurt puts it: “It is whether people have good lives, and not how their lives compare with the lives of others” (Frankfurt 1997, p. 6). And again: “The fundamental error of egalitarianism lies in supposing that it is morally important whether one person has less than another regardless of how much either of them has” (Frankfurt 1987, p. 34).

From the non-egalitarian perspective, what is really at stake in helping those worse off and improving their lot is humanitarian concern , a desire to alleviate suffering. Such concern is not understood as egalitarian, as it is not focused on the difference between the better off and the worse off as such (whatever the applied standard), but on improving the situation of the latter. Their distress constitutes the actual moral foundation. The wealth of those better off only furnishes a means that has to be transferred for the sake of mitigating the distress, as long as other, morally negative consequences do not emerge in the process. The strength of the impetus for more equality lies in the urgency of the claims of those worse off, not in the extent of the inequality. For this reason, instead of equality the non-egalitarian critics favor one or another entitlement theory of justice , such as Nozick’s (1974) libertarianism (cf. 3.2. above) and Frankfurt’s (1987) doctrine of sufficiency , according to which “What is important from the moral point of view is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough , it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others” (Frankfurt 1987, p. 21).

Parfit’s (1997) priority view accordingly calls for a focus on improving the situation of society’s weaker and poorer members, and indeed all the more urgently the worse off they are, even if they can be less helped than others in the process. Parfit (1995) distinguishes between egalitarianism and prioritarianism. According to prioritarians, benefiting people is more important the worse off those people are. This prioritising will often increase equality, but they are two distinct values, since in an important respect equality is a relational value while priority is not. However, egalitarians and prioritarians share an important feature, in that both hold that the best possible distribution of a fixed sum of goods is an equal one. It is thus a matter of debate whether prioritarianism is a sort of egalitarianism or a (decent) inegalitarianism. In any case, entitlement-based non-egalitarian arguments can practically result in an equality of outcome as far-reaching as egalitarian theories. Hence the fulfillment of an absolute or non-comparative standard for everyone (e.g. to the effect that nobody should starve) frequently results in a certain equality of outcome, where such a standard comprises not only a decent but a good life. Consequently, the debate here centers on the basis – is it equality or something else? – and not so much on the outcome – are persons or groups more or less equal, according to a chosen metric? Possibly, the difference lies even deeper, in their respective conceptions of morality in general.

Egalitarians can respond to the anti-egalitarian critique by conceding that it is the nature of some (however certainly far from all) essential norms of morality and justice to be concerned primarily with the adequate fulfillment of the separate claims of individuals. However, whether a claim can itself be considered suitable can be ascertained only by asking whether it can be agreed on by all those affected in hypothetical conditions of freedom and equality. (See, e.g., Casal 2007 for a deeper discussion and critique of the doctrine of sufficiency.) This justificatory procedure is more necessary if it is less evident that what is at stake is actually suffering, distress, or an objective need. In the view of the constitutive egalitarians, all the judgments of distributive justice should be approached relationally, by asking which distributive scheme all concerned parties can universally and reciprocally agree to. As described at some length in the pertinent section above, many egalitarians argue that a presumption in favor of equality follows from this justification requirement. In the eyes of such egalitarians, this is all one needs for the justification and determination of the constitutive value of equality.

Secondly, even if – for the sake of argument – the question is left open as to whether demands for distribution according to objective needs (e.g. alleviating hunger) involve non-comparative entitlement-claims, it is nonetheless always necessary to resolve the question of what needy individuals are owed. And this is tied in a basic way to the question of what persons owe one another in comparable or worse situations, and how scarce resources (money, goods, time, energy) must be invested in light of the sum total of our obligations. While the claim on our aid may well appear non-relational, determining the kind and extent of the aid must always be relational, at least in circumstances of scarcity (and resources are always scarce). Claims are either “satiable” (Raz 1986, p. 235) – i.e., an upper limit or sufficiency level can be indicated, after which each person’s claim to X has been fulfilled – or they are not. For insatiable claims, to stipulate any level at which one is or ought to be sufficiently satisfied is arbitrary. If the standards of sufficiency are defined as a bare minimum, why should persons be content with that minimum? Why should the manner in which welfare and resources are distributed above the poverty level not also be a question of justice? If, by contrast, we are concerned solely with claims that are in principle “satiable,” such claims having a reasonable definition of sufficiency, then these standards of sufficiency will most likely be very high. In Frankfurt’s definition, for example, sufficiency is reached only when persons are satisfied and no longer actively strive for more. Since people find themselves ourselves operating, in practice, in circumstances far beneath such a high sufficiency level, they (of course) live under conditions of (moderate) scarcity. Then the above mentioned argument holds as well – namely, that in order to determine to what extent it is to be fulfilled, each claim has to be judged in relation to the claims of all others and all available resources. In addition, the moral urgency of lifting people above dire poverty cannot be invoked to demonstrate the moral urgency of everyone having enough. In both forms of scarcity – i.e., with satiable and insatiable claims – the social right or claim to goods cannot be conceived as something absolute or non-comparative. Egalitarians may thus conclude that distributive justice is always comparative. This would suggest that distributive equality, especially equality of life-conditions, should play a fundamental role in any adequate theory of justice in particular, and of morality in general.

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Social Equality and Economic Growth Essay

Introduction, social equality and economic growth, works cited.

Social Equality and Economic Growth

Social equality refers to a situation where all individuals in a particular society are of the same status. It is an ideal situation given that it is not practical to achieve perfect egalitarianism in any given community. The similarities in status can be regarded in terms of security, access to services offered, and equality before the law. Other aspects of this phenomenon include freedoms and property rights. Equality also means the absence of social classes. Also, it implies the absence of discrimination. All the individuals are provided with equal opportunities in life (Edsall par. 3). However, most people regard the concept is as a form of utopia. The reason is that, as already indicated, it is difficult to have such a society where all individuals have equal chances and rights.

Economic growth is closely related to social equality. It refers to a rise in market value for goods and services produced in a particular economy within a given period. In most cases, the growth is expressed as a percentage of the annual change in gross domestic product. To achieve this phenomenon, the economy must be productive. Individuals in the country must also be engaged in meaningful economic activities for growth to occur (Porter par. 9). It is for this reason that it is important for every individual to be given equal opportunities to participate in nation-building.

In this essay, I am going to analyze the relationship between social equality and economic growth. The analysis will be made in the context of an article published in the New York Times about this topic.

As already indicated, there is a close link between the two concepts. Social equality provides individuals with equal opportunities to contribute to the growth of the economy (Krugman par. 12). Such people have equal chances to be productive. Equality also ensures that the potential of the society is fully exploited to enhance the development of the entire community. However, in spite of the apparent relationship, economic growth has been cited as a major factor behind social inequalities. The rise in economic prosperity leads to the emergence of social classes, which makes it difficult to achieve equality. The reason is that the benefits of these economic developments are not accessed by all individuals equally. As a result, people have come up with divergent views concerning the link existing between the two phenomena. Two schools of thought with different views have emerged. One of the groups supports a positive relationship between the two. They feel that social equality stimulates economic growth. On their part, the other group is of the view that economic growth impedes the achievement of social equality.

Capitalism is one of the major problems that have contributed to social inequalities in society today. The concept refers to an economic system where industries, means of production, and trade are privately owned and controlled (Fung par. 22). The players involved are charged with the responsibility of setting the prices for goods, assets, and services. The practice exposes buyers to the risk of being exploited by these market players in their bid to maximize their gains. The major concern of these investors is profit margins. They are rarely concerned with the welfare of the consumers. It is noted that the group of market players is made up of a few wealthy individuals. As a result, the system is characterized by stiff competition between producers. There is also the unfettered accumulation of capital among the investors (Fung par. 22). Wealth is controlled by a few individuals who make decisions affecting millions of people. For this reason, there is a wide gap between the rich and the poor in most of the capitalist economies (Porter par. 9).

Most of the world’s economies, such as those in the United States of America and China, have adopted capitalism. The governments in such countries advocate for free trade. As a result, they have little or no control over property rights. They also lack control over the markets. To safeguard the interests of the citizens, there is a need for government to take a more proactive role in the economy. Failure to put in place control measures leaves the citizens vulnerable to economic abuse. Exploitation by capitalists may be in the form of hiked prices of goods and services and low wages for labor (Tritch par. 17).

One of the ways through which capitalism leads to the exploitation of citizens is by encouraging the emergence of monopolies (Olivo and Sullivan 31). The formation of monopolies grants the production rights to only a few individuals. Lack of competition gives these individuals the liberty to change the prices of their goods and services at will. Also, monopolies interfere with the distribution of wealth in society. Only a few individuals can accumulate assets and other forms of capital (Fung par. 22). Other potential producers are denied the opportunity to operate. As such, the economic system continues to hinder the achievement of social equality. It has led to the widening of the gap between the wealthy and the poor in society (Porter par. 9).

Factors that have aggravated the situation include the aforementioned increased inequalities between the wealthy and the poor. There is a need to provide all individuals with equal opportunities. Some economists think that promoting equality would enhance economic growth compared to a system where only a few individuals are in control of production rights (Fung par. 22). There is increasing pressure on governments to promote equality to increase social welfare (Grynbaum par. 22). It is not fair to have a few extremely wealthy individuals, while the majority of the citizens languish in poverty.

At times, the information highlighting the form of relationship between social egalitarianism and development is sketchy. Different economists view social equality from varying dimensions. Regardless of the divergent views, it is important to take into consideration what seems right and fair. Social fairness aims at redistributing wealth and resources among individuals in society (Krugman par. 12). Discrimination is significantly reduced since there would be no social classes. All individuals are accorded equal chances to contribute to the economy and benefit from the same. As a result, the per capita income for the poor is likely to rise, reducing levels of poverty.

The experts and analysts who think that equality would promote economic growth also feel that social inequality leads to wastage of human potential. For example, over 40 percent of the children living in the United States of America are from poor backgrounds (Krugman par. 12). The children are not given a chance to contribute to growth in society. On the other hand, those from affluent backgrounds receive preferential treatment. The situation means that only about 60 percent of the American children are adequately empowered to exploit the available opportunities and resources. The remaining 40 percent lack the means to produce. They often end up working for those from affluent backgrounds. Only a few of them are in a position to realize their potential after many years of struggle. As a result, these individuals are not as productive as they should be (Porter par. 9). In the process, economic growth is hindered.

Some economists think that measures to promote social equality would lead to reduced economic growth (Edsall par. 4). Such strategies include imposing taxes on the affluent in society. However, such a move is likely to hurt the economy. The reason is that individuals would make little or no returns from the services they offer and the goods they produce. As a result, wealthy individuals would lose more to taxation than they would be gaining from the economic growth expected to be brought about by social equality (Krugman par. 12). Such persons are mostly successful investors. Taxation and such other measures to address inequalities would scare away these investors, reducing the economy’s total productivity in the long run. The effects of such a move are more devastating than inequality itself.

To begin with, many individuals would lose their jobs as businesses begin to shut down. The rate of unemployment would increase, taking a toll on the economy since many individuals are rendered unproductive. Per capita income would also be considerably reduced.

I find it important to have an accurate picture of the real effects of inequalities on economic growth. As stated earlier, different economists have varying opinions concerning this issue (Edsall par. 3). The scholars have come up with brilliant explanations to support their arguments. However, the effects have not been determined quantitatively. As such, the real benefits of promoting equality are not well documented.

Different words have been used to describe and define the concept of egalitarianism. Such terms include, among others, redistribution. In such discourses, the term is used to describe the process of obtaining wealth from some individuals and indirectly giving it to the poor. However, such a strategy has its evils. The situation would mean taking from the wealthy and those from high social status what is rightfully theirs (Grynbaum par. 22). In light of this, the move is likely to encounter resistance from those persons who are considered to be of high social standing in the economy. The criterion to be used in the redistribution of wealth is also a major concern. Equality must be achieved through a specific set of standards for it to be viewed as fair and transparent. The process is also very demanding. Appropriate measures need to be put in place to ensure that the resources that have been obtained from the affluent in the society are given to deserving individuals.

I have learned that the problem of social inequality forms a cycle that is hard to break. Individuals who lack the opportunity to produce and become wealthy are not in a position to empower their children. For this reason, the issue of social inequality has become a recurrent problem. It is passed from one generation to the other. The situation means that the differences between the haves and have-nots continue to increase (Krugman par. 12). Governments and other stakeholders should address this issue with the urgency it deserves. If this does not happen, there is a likelihood that the different world economies would suffer from reduced growth due to failure to fully exploit human and other resources available. Many skills and abilities are unnoticed. As a result, they are not fully utilized. The economy has to seek for such skills from other areas, a process that increases the cost of production. In light of this, social equality would go a long way in stimulating economic growth.

Great care should be taken when promoting equality between members of the society (Edsall par. 34). The move should be implemented in such a way that it is viewed by all to be in good faith. It should be geared towards benefiting the entire society. Some may argue that equality should be in terms of opportunities and not outcomes. The statement seems realistic in terms of providing all members of society with equal opportunities. Such a strategy would not be seen to be undermining any particular group of people. In any case, it would stimulate healthy competition among individuals. Such competition is important as it spurs economic growth. It is expected that all persons would work hard for them to gain from equal opportunities availed to them.

However good the statement sounds, it is not realistic. For equality to be achieved through availing equal opportunities to all, a lot of time is required (Krugman par. 12). The approach can only be used in bringing social egalitarianism to future generations. For instance, it can be used to improve the future of 40 percent of American children brought up in poor homes. It is unrealistic to think that these individuals would have equal access to opportunities, such as education, health, and jobs, as children from rich families. The children from low-income families are also likely to drop out of school. They may not complete their college education. Individuals from both poor and wealthy backgrounds may probably be allowed to attend the same schools. However, those from low-income families may lack the capacity to settle the high charges associated with learning in such institutions.

For this reason, opportunities alone would not bring about social equality. People should be empowered to contribute to the economy and improve their living standards. Giving such people opportunities is not enough. Capital and resources are needed to exploit opportunities and ideas. The poor in society lack these important factors to enhance the quality of their life. That is one of the reasons why equality has not been achieved in society (Goltz par. 16).

Social equality would be achieved when people reap similar outcomes from the opportunities availed to them. For this reason, the statement that we should seek to achieve equality of opportunities, as opposed to fairness in outcomes, is not valid. Inequalities in outcomes are the major reasons why social egalitarianism has not been achieved in contemporary society. People cannot have equal opportunities if they are not in a position to benefit equally. As a result, there are disparities in the outcomes obtained from opportunities availed to different members of society. That is the reason why the gap between the poor and the rich continues to increase.

Edsall, Thomas 2014, Just Right Inequality . Web.

Fung, Brian 2014, Forget the 1 Percent. In the Bitcoin World, Half the Wealth Belongs to the 0.1 Percent . Web.

Goltz, Jay 2014, 10 Words Entrepreneurs should use with Caution . Web.

Grynbaum, Michael 2014, Litigant against Social Welfare Agency will be its Leader . Web.

Krugman, Paul 2014, Liberty, Equality, Efficiency . Web.

Olivo, Antonio, and Patricia Sullivan, 2014, Northern Va. Property Values, and Tax Bills, are Up- but Public Services Aren’t. Web.

Porter, Eduardo 2014, A Relentless Widening of Disparity in Wealth . Web.

Tritch, Teresa 2014, Yet more G.O.P. Hypocrisy on the Minimum Wage . Web.

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Economic Inequality: What It Is and How It Impacts You

There are steps Americans can take to fight economic inequality in their personal lives and communities.

What to Know About Economic Inequality

Income Inequality

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Wealth and income inequality have increased over the previous half-century.

It's nearly impossible to read the news these days without running across mentions of economic inequality.

In recent months, politicians have debated the merits of raising marginal tax rates on the wealthy, a move proponents say could reduce economic inequalities. Likewise, economic inequality takes center stage when columnists discuss the extreme riches of some of today's business owners, like Jeff Bezos, who could purchase every home in Austin, Texas, according to real estate brokerage Redfin . The concept of economic inequality was even discussed during the recent college admissions scandal in which celebrities and other wealthy parents allegedly paid bribes to secure college acceptance letters for their children.

So what is economic inequality, and how does it impact you? Here's what to know about this important social and financial concept.

What Is Economic Inequality?

Economic inequality is a broad term that encapsulates the gap between the income and wealth amassed by different groups in a society. Americans reference it when questioning why CEOs earn so much more than their employees or how historical and current policies have barred families of color from accumulating wealth. "Economic inequality is the more generic name and within that you could talk about income inequality and wealth inequality," says Jim Freeland, professor of business administration at Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

Understanding economic inequality can be complex, Freeland says. "It's not, by itself, bad," he says. "A lot of people would say, when you see (economic inequality), it's a measure that capitalism is working." But, he adds, "It's a question of: How unequal should it be? A lot of people are concerned we've gone beyond where it should be."

Indeed, wealth and income inequality have increased over the previous half-century. According to the Urban Institute , in 1963, a family in the 90th wealth percentile had about six times the wealth owned by the typical American family. This gap was relatively stable until about 1983, when it quickly widened. By 2016, a family at the 90th percentile had almost $1.2 million in wealth, more than 12 times the amount owned by the typical family.

(Courtesy of the Urban Institute)

Similarly, income inequality has risen over the past 50 years, according to the Urban Institute . The income for families near the top of the income spectrum increased by about 90 percent from 1963 to 2016. Meanwhile, the income of families at the bottom increased less than 10 percent.

While income inequality is worth considering, wealth inequality is a more revealing and comprehensive metric to understand, says Signe-Mary McKernan, co-director of the Opportunity and Ownership initiative and an economist at the Urban Institute. Income can have a powerful impact on a person's financial health and status, but the passing down of wealth through generations is a more powerful measure of opportunity and prosperity. "Wealth is important because it's where economic opportunity lies," McKernan says.

How Does Economic Inequality Impact You?

You may not be thinking about the wealth gap when buying your first home or applying for a credit card , but these economic structures have real-world impacts on your daily life.

"There's a strong correlation between economic inequality and opportunity inequality," Freeland says. An economic imbalance impacts people's abilities to climb the wealth ladder and to get ahead by working hard, he says. It can lead to geographic segregation, gaps in educational attainment and cycles of poverty. "If you can't move, it really makes you feel kind of helpless and you give up hope," he says.

Economic inequality can leave families financially vulnerable, unable to weather small financial setbacks or begin to build wealth. It can put families in financial jeopardy when a crisis such as a job loss arises, Freeland says. On a political level, he says, it can threaten democracy as a small group of elite amass political influence and control.

(Courtesy of Fabian T. Pfeffer (Inequality Lab, University of Michigan and Alexandra Killewald (Harvard University) )

How Can I Fight Back Against Economic Inequality?

It isn't easy, but there are individual and community-focused moves Americans can make to battle economic inequality in their lives and in their localities. "I think the thing that helps people do that is to reconcile that, yes, what we do personally matters, and we are within a larger construct," says Saundra Davis, a financial coach and financial behavior specialist at Sage Financial Solutions in San Francisco.

On the personal level, families at all income levels can take steps to shore up their financial stability and ability to survive financial setbacks, including taking advantage of employer-sponsored or public savings programs and safety nets.

Urban Institute's McKernan suggests funneling money into automatic savings vehicles, such as employee retirement accounts , IRAs or via automatic transfers from a checking to a savings account. "Low-income families with savings are more financially resilient than middle-income families without savings," she says.

Prioritizing access to health insurance, either through an employer or a government program, is another key way to avoid medical debt , which can be crippling for many families. While economic inequality is a broad topic, it can be helpful to tackle it head-on in your financial life. "Even if you are poor or low-income, research has shown you can build wealth," McKernan says. "It's not easy, but it's possible."

To combat economic inequality from a community-wide perspective, consider supporting policy ideas that tackle wealth inequality. Policies that improve schools, provide parenting resources and desegregate housing can combat economic inequality, Freeland says. Join programs that improve mobility and help people in need, such as tutoring disadvantaged students or coaching a community sports team. Business owners can close economic gaps when they offer support to their employees, such as paid sick leave , child care resources and paid time off, Freeland says.

McKernan points to recent policies in states such as New York and Oregon, where officials are working to launch automatic retirement plans for workers who don't have access to employer-sponsored 401(k)s. Another policy suggestion that addresses economic inequality: opportunity bonds. One proposal would give newborns a $1,000 savings account at birth, which could accrue additional deposits and interest until that child turns 18.

There may be other kinds of programs specific to your region that aim to close the wealth and income gap and limit economic inequality. Select what coincides with your values and the needs of your community. When it comes to solving economic inequality, "this is a complicated and difficult problem, so there's no one solution," Freeland says. "A whole bunch of people need to do a whole bunch of different things."

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Gender inequality as a barrier to economic growth: a review of the theoretical literature

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  • Published: 15 January 2021
  • Volume 19 , pages 581–614, ( 2021 )

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In this article, we survey the theoretical literature investigating the role of gender inequality in economic development. The vast majority of theories reviewed argue that gender inequality is a barrier to development, particularly over the long run. Among the many plausible mechanisms through which inequality between men and women affects the aggregate economy, the role of women for fertility decisions and human capital investments is particularly emphasized in the literature. Yet, we believe the body of theories could be expanded in several directions.

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1 Introduction

Theories of long-run economic development have increasingly relied on two central forces: population growth and human capital accumulation. Both forces depend on decisions made primarily within households: population growth is partially determined by households’ fertility choices (e.g., Becker & Barro 1988 ), while human capital accumulation is partially dependent on parental investments in child education and health (e.g., Lucas 1988 ).

In an earlier survey of the literature linking family decisions to economic growth, Grimm ( 2003 ) laments that “[m]ost models ignore the two-sex issue. Parents are modeled as a fictive asexual human being” (p. 154). Footnote 1 Since then, however, economists are increasingly recognizing that gender plays a fundamental role in how households reproduce and care for their children. As a result, many models of economic growth are now populated with men and women. The “fictive asexual human being” is a dying species. In this article, we survey this rich new landscape in theoretical macroeconomics, reviewing, in particular, micro-founded theories where gender inequality affects economic development.

For the purpose of this survey, gender inequality is defined as any exogenously imposed difference between male and female economic agents that, by shaping their behavior, has implications for aggregate economic growth. In practice, gender inequality is typically modeled as differences between men and women in endowments, constraints, or preferences.

Many articles review the literature on gender inequality and economic growth. Footnote 2 Typically, both the theoretical and empirical literature are discussed, but, in almost all cases, the vast empirical literature receives most of the attention. In addition, some of the surveys examine both sides of the two-way relationship between gender inequality and economic growth: gender equality as a cause of economic growth and economic growth as a cause of gender equality. As a result, most surveys end up only scratching the surface of each of these distinct strands of literature.

There is, by now, a large and insightful body of micro-founded theories exploring how gender equality affects economic growth. In our view, these theories merit a separate review. Moreover, they have not received sufficient attention in empirical work, which has largely developed independently (see also Cuberes & Teignier 2014 ). By reviewing the theoretical literature, we hope to motivate empirical researchers in finding new ways of putting these theories to test. In doing so, our work complements several existing surveys. Doepke & Tertilt ( 2016 ) review the theoretical literature that incorporates families in macroeconomic models, without focusing exclusively on models that include gender inequality, as we do. Greenwood, Guner and Vandenbroucke ( 2017 ), in turn, review the theoretical literature from the opposite direction; they study how macroeconomic models can explain changes in family outcomes. Doepke, Tertilt and Voena ( 2012 ) survey the political economy of women’s rights, but without focusing explicitly on their impact on economic development.

To be precise, the scope of this survey consists of micro-founded macroeconomic models where gender inequality (in endowments, constraints, preferences) affects economic growth—either by influencing the economy’s growth rate or shaping the transition paths between multiple income equilibria. As a result, this survey does not cover several upstream fields of partial-equilibrium micro models, where gender inequality affects several intermediate growth-related outcomes, such as labor supply, education, health. Additionally, by focusing on micro-founded macro models, we do not review studies in heterodox macroeconomics, including the feminist economics tradition using structuralist, demand-driven models. For recent overviews of this literature, see Kabeer ( 2016 ) and Seguino ( 2013 , 2020 ). Overall, we find very little dialogue between the neoclassical and feminist heterodox literatures. In this review, we will show that actually these two traditions have several points of contact and reach similar conclusions in many areas, albeit following distinct intellectual routes.

Although the incorporation of gender in macroeconomic models of economic growth is a recent development, the main gendered ingredients of those models are not new. They were developed in at least two strands of literature. First, since the 1960s, “new home economics” has applied the analytical toolbox of rational choice theory to decisions being made within the boundaries of the family (see, e.g., Becker 1960 , 1981 ). Footnote 3 A second literature strand, mostly based on empirical work at the micro level in developing countries, described clear patterns of gender-specific behavior within households that differed across regions of the developing world (see, e.g., Boserup 1970 ). Footnote 4 As we shall see, most of the (micro-founded) macroeconomic models reviewed in this article use several analytical mechanisms from "new home economics”; these mechanisms can typically rationalize several of the gender-specific regularities observed in early studies of developing countries. The growth theorist is then left to explore the aggregate implications for economic development.

The first models we present focus on gender discrimination in (or on access to) the labor market as a distortionary tax on talent. If talent is randomly distributed in the population, men and women are imperfect substitutes in aggregate production, and, as a consequence, gender inequality (as long as determined by non-market processes) will misallocate talent and lower incentives for female human capital formation. These theories do not rely on typical household functions such as reproduction and childrearing. Therefore, in these models, individuals are not organized into households. We review this literature in section 2 .

From there, we proceed to theories where the household is the unit of analysis. In sections 3 and 4 , we cover models that take the household as given and avoid marriage markets or other household formation institutions. This is a world where marriage (or cohabitation) is universal, consensual, and monogamous; families are nuclear, and spouses are matched randomly. The first articles in this tradition model the household as a unitary entity with joint preferences and interests, and with an efficient and centralized decision making process. Footnote 5 These theories posit how men and women specialize into different activities and how parents interact with their children. Section 3 reviews these theories. Over time, the literature has incorporated intra-household dynamics. Now, family members are allowed to have different preferences and interests; they bargain, either cooperatively or not, over family decisions. Now, the theorist recognizes power asymmetries between family members and analyzes how spouses bargain over decisions. Footnote 6 These articles are surveyed in section 4 .

The final set of articles we survey take into account how households are formed. These theories show how gender inequality can influence economic growth and long-run development through marriage market institutions and family formation patterns. Among other topics, this literature has studied ages at first marriage, relative supply of potential partners, monogamy and polygyny, arranged and consensual marriages, and divorce risk. Upon marriage, these models assume different bargaining processes between the spouses, or even unitary households, but they all recognize, in one way or another, that marriage, labor supply, consumption, and investment decisions are interdependent. We review these theories in section 5 .

Table 1 offers a schematic overview of the literature. To improve readability, the table only includes studies that we review in detail, with articles listed in order of appearance in the text. The table also abstracts from models’ extensions and sensitivity checks, and focuses exclusively on the causal pathways leading from gender inequality to economic growth.

The vast majority of theories reviewed argue that gender inequality is a barrier to economic development, particularly over the long run. The focus on long-run supply-side models reflects a recent effort by growth theorists to incorporate two stylized facts of economic development in the last two centuries: (i) a strong positive association between gender equality and income per capita (Fig. 1 ), and (ii) a strong association between the timing of the fertility transition and income per capita (Fig. 2 ). Footnote 7 Models that endogenize a fertility transition are able to generate a transition from a Malthusian regime of stagnation to a modern regime of sustained economic growth, thus replicating the development experience of human societies in the very long run (e.g., Galor 2005a , b ; Guinnane 2011 ). In contrast, demand-driven models in the heterodox and feminist traditions have often argued that gender wage discrimination and gendered sectoral and occupational segregation can be conducive to economic growth in semi-industrialized export-oriented economies. Footnote 8 In these settings—that fit well the experience of East and Southeast Asian economies—gender wage discrimination in female-intensive export industries reduces production costs and boosts exports, profits, and investment (Blecker & Seguino 2002 ; Seguino 2010 ).

figure 1

Income level and gender equality. Income is the natural log of per capita GDP (PPP-adjusted). The Gender Development Index is the ratio of gender-specific Human Development Indexes: female HDI/male HDI. Data are for the year 2000. Sources: UNDP

figure 2

Income level and timing of the fertility transition. Income is the natural log of per capita GDP (PPP-adjusted) in 2000. Years since fertility transition are the number of years between 2000 and the onset year of the fertility decline. See Reher ( 2004 ) for details. Sources: UNDP and Reher ( 2004 )

In most long-run, supply-side models reviewed here, irrespectively of the underlying source of gender differences (e.g., biology, socialization, discrimination), the opportunity cost of women’s time in foregone labor market earnings is lower than that of men. This gender gap in the value of time affects economic growth through two main mechanisms. First, when the labor market value of women’s time is relatively low, women will be in charge of childrearing and domestic work in the family. A low value of female time means that children are cheap. Fertility will be high, and economic growth will be low, both because population growth has a direct negative impact on long-run economic performance and because human capital accumulates at a slower pace (through the quantity-quality trade-off). Second, if parents expect relatively low returns to female education, due to women specializing in domestic activities, they will invest relatively less in the education of girls. In the words of Harriet Martineau, one of the first to describe this mechanism, “as women have none of the objects in life for which an enlarged education is considered requisite, the education is not given” (Martineau 1837 , p. 107). In the long run, lower human capital investments (on girls) lead to slower economic development.

Overall, gender inequality can be conceptualized as a source of inefficiency, to the extent that it results in the misallocation of productive factors, such as talent or labor, and as a source of negative externalities, when it leads to higher fertility, skewed sex ratios, or lower human capital accumulation.

We conclude, in section 6 , by examining the limitations of the current literature and pointing ways forward. Among them, we suggest deeper investigations of the role of (endogenous) technological change on gender inequality, as well as greater attention to the role and interests of men in affecting gender inequality and its impact on growth.

2 Gender discrimination and misallocation of talent

Perhaps the single most intuitive argument for why gender discrimination leads to aggregate inefficiency and hampers economic growth concerns the allocation of talent. Assume that talent is randomly distributed in the population. Then, an economy that curbs women’s access to education, market employment, or certain occupations draws talent from a smaller pool than an economy without such restrictions. Gender inequality can thus be viewed as a distortionary tax on talent. Indeed, occupational choice models with heterogeneous talent (as in Roy 1951 ) show that exogenous barriers to women’s participation in the labor market or access to certain occupations reduce aggregate productivity and per capita output (Cuberes & Teignier 2016 , 2017 ; Esteve-Volart 2009 ; Hsieh, Hurst, Jones and Klenow 2019 ).

Hsieh et al. ( 2019 ) represent the US economy with a model where individuals sort into occupations based on innate ability. Footnote 9 Gender and race identity, however, are a source of discrimination, with three forces preventing women and black men from choosing the occupations best fitting their comparative advantage. First, these groups face labor market discrimination, which is modeled as a tax on wages and can vary by occupation. Second, there is discrimination in human capital formation, with the costs of occupation-specific human capital being higher for certain groups. This cost penalty is a composite term encompassing discrimination or quality differentials in private or public inputs into children’s human capital. The third force are group-specific social norms that generate utility premia or penalties across occupations. Footnote 10

Assuming that the distribution of innate ability across race and gender is constant over time, Hsieh et al. ( 2019 ) investigate and quantify how declines in labor market discrimination, barriers to human capital formation, and changing social norms affect aggregate output and productivity in the United States, between 1960 and 2010. Over that period, their general equilibrium model suggests that around 40 percent of growth in per capita GDP and 90 percent of growth in labor force participation can be attributed to reductions in the misallocation of talent across occupations. Declining in barriers to human capital formation account for most of these effects, followed by declining labor market discrimination. Changing social norms, on the other hand, explain only a residual share of aggregate changes.

Two main mechanisms drive these results. First, falling discrimination improves efficiency through a better match between individual ability and occupation. Second, because discrimination is higher in high-skill occupations, when discrimination decreases, high-ability women and black men invest more in human capital and supply more labor to the market. Overall, better allocation of talent, rising labor supply, and faster human capital accumulation raise aggregate growth and productivity.

Other occupational choice models assuming gender inequality in access to the labor market or certain occupations reach similar conclusions. In addition to the mechanisms in Hsieh et al. ( 2019 ), barriers to women’s work in managerial or entrepreneurial occupations reduce average talent in these positions, resulting in aggregate losses in innovation, technology adoption, and productivity (Cuberes & Teignier 2016 , 2017 ; Esteve-Volart 2009 ). The argument can be readily applied to talent misallocation across sectors (Lee 2020 ). In Lee’s model, female workers face discrimination in the non-agricultural sector. As a result, talented women end up sorting into ill-suited agricultural activities. This distortion reduces aggregate productivity in agriculture. Footnote 11

To sum up, when talent is randomly distributed in the population, barriers to women’s education, employment, or occupational choice effectively reduce the pool of talent in the economy. According to these models, dismantling these gendered barriers can have an immediate positive effect on economic growth.

3 Unitary households: parents and children

In this section, we review models built upon unitary households. A unitary household maximizes a joint utility function subject to pooled household resources. Intra-household decision making is assumed away; the household is effectively a black-box. In this class of models, gender inequality stems from a variety of sources. It is rooted in differences in physical strength (Galor & Weil 1996 ; Hiller 2014 ; Kimura & Yasui 2010 ) or health (Bloom et al. 2015 ); it is embedded in social norms (Hiller 2014 ; Lagerlöf 2003 ), labor market discrimination (Cavalcanti & Tavares 2016 ), or son preference (Zhang, Zhang and Li 1999 ). In all these models, gender inequality is a barrier to long-run economic development.

Galor & Weil ( 1996 ) model an economy with three factors of production: capital, physical labor (“brawn”), and mental labor (“brain”). Men and women are equally endowed with brains, but men have more brawn. In economies starting with very low levels of capital per worker, women fully specialize in childrearing because their opportunity cost in terms of foregone market earnings is lower than men’s. Over time, the stock of capital per worker builds up due to exogenous technological progress. The degree of complementarity between capital and mental labor is higher than that between capital and physical labor; as the economy accumulates capital per worker, the returns to brain rise relative to the returns to brawn. As a result, the relative wages of women rise, increasing the opportunity cost of childrearing. This negative substitution effect dominates the positive income effect on the demand for children and fertility falls. Footnote 12 As fertility falls, capital per worker accumulates faster creating a positive feedback loop that generates a fertility transition and kick starts a process of sustained economic growth.

The model has multiple stable equilibria. An economy starting from a low level of capital per worker is caught in a Malthusian poverty trap of high fertility, low income per capita, and low relative wages for women. In contrast, an economy starting from a sufficiently high level of capital per worker will converge to a virtuous equilibrium of low fertility, high income per capita, and high relative wages for women. Through exogenous technological progress, the economy can move from the low to the high equilibrium.

Gender inequality in labor market access or returns to brain can slow down or even prevent the escape from the Malthusian equilibrium. Wage discrimination or barriers to employment would work against the rise of relative female wages and, therefore, slow down the takeoff to modern economic growth.

The Galor and Weil model predicts how female labor supply and fertility evolve in the course of development. First, (married) women start participating in market work and only afterwards does fertility start declining. Historically, however, in the US and Western Europe, the decline in fertility occurred before women’s participation rates in the labor market started their dramatic increase. In addition, these regions experienced a mid-twentieth century baby boom which seems at odds with Galor and Weil’s theory.

Both these stylized facts can be addressed by adding home production to the modeling, as do Kimura & Yasui ( 2010 ). In their article, as capital per worker accumulates, the market wage for brains rises and the economy moves through four stages of development. In the first stage, with a sufficiently low market wage, both husband and wife are fully dedicated to home production and childrearing. The household does not supply labor to the market; fertility is high and constant. In the second stage, as the wage rate increases, men enter the labor market (supplying both brawn and brain), whereas women remain fully engaged in home production and childrearing. But as men partially withdraw from home production, women have to replace them. As a result, their time cost of childrearing goes up. At this stage of development, the negative substitution effect of rising wages on fertility dominates the positive income effect. Fertility starts declining, even though women have not yet entered the labor market. The third stage arrives when men stop working in home production. There is complete specialization of labor by gender; men only do market work, and women only do home production and childrearing. As the market wage rises for men, the positive income effect becomes dominant and fertility increases; this mimics the baby-boom period of the mid-twentieth century. In the fourth and final stage, once sufficient capital is accumulated, women enter the market sector as wage-earners. The negative substitution effect of rising female opportunity costs dominates once again, and fertility declines. The economy moves from a “breadwinner model” to a “dual-earnings model”.

Another important form of gender inequality is discrimination against women in the form of lower wages, holding male and female productivity constant. Cavalcanti & Tavares ( 2016 ) estimate the aggregate effects of wage discrimination using a model-based general equilibrium representation of the US economy. In their model, women are assumed to be more productive in childrearing than men, so they pay the full time cost of this activity. In the labor market, even though men and women are equally productive, women receive only a fraction of the male wage rate—this is the wage discrimination assumption. Wage discrimination works as a tax on female labor supply. Because women work less than they would without discrimination, there is a negative level effect on per capita output. In addition, there is a second negative effect of wage discrimination operating through endogenous fertility. Since lower wages reduce women’s opportunity costs of childrearing, fertility is relatively high, and output per capita is relatively low. The authors calibrate the model to US steady state parameters and estimate large negative output costs of the gender wage gap. Reducing wage discrimination against women by 50 percent would raise per capita income by 35 percent, in the long run.

Human capital accumulation plays no role in Galor & Weil ( 1996 ), Kimura & Yasui ( 2010 ), and Cavalcanti & Tavares ( 2016 ). Each person is exogenously endowed with a unit of brains. The fundamental trade-off in the these models is between the income and substitution effects of rising wages on the demand for children. When Lagerlöf ( 2003 ) adds education investments to a gender-based model, an additional trade-off emerges: that between the quantity and the quality of children.

Lagerlöf ( 2003 ) models gender inequality as a social norm: on average, men have higher human capital than women. Confronted with this fact, parents play a coordination game in which it is optimal for them to reproduce the inequality in the next generation. The reason is that parents expect the future husbands of their daughters to be, on average, relatively more educated than the future wives of their sons. Because, in the model, parents care for the total income of their children’s future households, they respond by investing relatively less in daughters’ human capital. Here, gender inequality does not arise from some intrinsic difference between men and women. It is instead the result of a coordination failure: “[i]f everyone else behaves in a discriminatory manner, it is optimal for the atomistic player to do the same” (Lagerlöf 2003 , p. 404).

With lower human capital, women earn lower wages than men and are therefore solely responsible for the time cost of childrearing. But if, exogenously, the social norm becomes more gender egalitarian over time, the gender gap in parental educational investment decreases. As better educated girls grow up and become mothers, their opportunity costs of childrearing are higher. Parents trade-off the quantity of children by their quality; fertility falls and human capital accumulates. However, rising wages have an offsetting positive income effect on fertility because parents pay a (fixed) “goods cost” per child. The goods cost is proportionally more important in poor societies than in richer ones. As a result, in poor economies, growth takes off slowly because the positive income effect offsets a large chunk of the negative substitution effect. As economies grow richer, the positive income effect vanishes (as a share of total income), and fertility declines faster. That is, growth accelerates over time even if gender equality increases only linearly.

The natural next step is to model how the social norm on gender roles evolves endogenously during the course of development. Hiller ( 2014 ) develops such a model by combining two main ingredients: a gender gap in the endowments of brawn (as in Galor & Weil 1996 ) generates a social norm, which each parental couple takes as given (as in Lagerlöf 2003 ). The social norm evolves endogenously, but slowly; it tracks the gender ratio of labor supply in the market, but with a small elasticity. When the male-female ratio in labor supply decreases, stereotypes adjust and the norm becomes less discriminatory against women.

The model generates a U-shaped relationship between economic development and female labor force participation. Footnote 13 In the preindustrial stage, there is no education and all labor activities are unskilled, i.e., produced with brawn. Because men have a comparative advantage in brawn, they supply more labor to the market than women, who specialize in home production. This gender gap in labor supply creates a social norm that favors boys over girls. Over time, exogenous skill-biased technological progress raises the relative returns to brains, inducing parents to invest in their children’s education. At the beginning, however, because of the social norm, only boys become educated. The economy accumulates human capital and grows, generating a positive income effect that, in isolation, would eventually drive up parental investments in girls’ education. Footnote 14 But endogenous social norms move in the opposite direction. When only boys receive education, the gender gap in returns to market work increases, and women withdraw to home production. As female relative labor supply in the market drops, the social norm becomes more discriminatory against women. As a result, parents want to invest relatively less in their daughters’ education.

In the end, initial conditions determine which of the forces dominates, thereby shaping long-term outcomes. If, initially, the social norm is very discriminatory, its effect is stronger than the income effect; the economy becomes trapped in an equilibrium with high gender inequality and low per capita income. If, on the other hand, social norms are relatively egalitarian to begin with, then the income effect dominates, and the economy converges to an equilibrium with gender equality and high income per capita.

In the models reviewed so far, human capital or brain endowments can be understood as combining both education and health. Bloom et al. ( 2015 ) explicitly distinguish these two dimensions. Health affects labor market earnings because sick people are out of work more often (participation effect) and are less productive per hour of work (productivity effect). Female health is assumed to be worse than male health, implying that women’s effective wages are lower than men’s. As a result, women are solely responsible for childrearing. Footnote 15

The model produces two growth regimes: a Malthusian trap with high fertility and no educational investments; and a regime of sustained growth, declining fertility, and rising educational investments. Once wages reach a certain threshold, the economy goes through a fertility transition and education expansion, taking off from the Malthusian regime to the sustained growth regime.

Female health promotes growth in both regimes, and it affects the timing of the takeoff. The healthier women are, the earlier the economy takes off. The reason is that a healthier woman earns a higher effective wage and, consequently, faces higher opportunity costs of raising children. When female health improves, the rising opportunity costs of children reduce the wage threshold at which educational investments become attractive; the fertility transition and mass education periods occur earlier.

In contrast, improved male health slows down economic growth and delays the fertility transition. When men become healthier, there is only a income effect on the demand for children, without the negative substitution effect (because male childrearing time is already zero). The policy conclusion would be to redistribute health from men to women. However, the policy would impose a static utility cost on the household. Because women’s time allocation to market work is constrained by childrearing responsibilities (whereas men work full-time), the marginal effect of health on household income is larger for men than for women. From the household’s point of view, reducing the gender gap in health produces a trade-off between short-term income maximization and long-term economic development.

In an extension of the model, the authors endogeneize health investments, while keeping the assumption that women pay the full time cost of childrearing. Because women participate less in the labor market (due to childrearing duties), it is optimal for households to invest more in male health. A health gender gap emerges from rational household behavior that takes into account how time-constraints differ by gender; assuming taste-based discrimination against girls or gender-specific preferences is not necessary.

In the models reviewed so far, parents invest in their children’s human capital for purely altruistic reasons. This is captured in the models by assuming that parents derive utility directly from the quantity and quality of children. This is the classical representation of children as durable consumption goods (e.g., Becker 1960 ). In reality, of course, parents may also have egoistic motivations for investing in child quantity and quality. A typical example is that, when parents get old and retire, they receive support from their children. The quantity and quality of children will affect the size of old-age transfers and parents internalize this in their fertility and childcare behavior. According to this view, children are best understood as investment goods.

Zhang et al. ( 1999 ) build an endogenous growth model that incorporates the old-age support mechanism in parental decisions. Another innovative element of their model is that parents can choose the gender of their children. The implicit assumption is that sex selection technologies are freely available to all parents.

At birth, there is a gender gap in human capital endowment, favoring boys over girls. Footnote 16 In adulthood, a child’s human capital depends on the initial endowment and on the parents’ human capital. In addition, the probability that a child survives to adulthood is exogenous and can differ by gender.

Parents receive old-age support from children that survive until adulthood. The more human capital children have, the more old-age support they provide to their parents. Beyond this egoistic motive, parents also enjoy the quantity and the quality of children (altruistic motive). Son preference is modeled by boys having a higher relative weight in the altruistic-component of the parental utility function. In other words, in their enjoyment of children as consumer goods, parents enjoy “consuming” a son more than “consuming” a girl. Parents who prefer sons want more boys than girls. A larger preference for sons, a higher relative survival probability of boys, and a higher human capital endowment of boys positively affect the sex ratio at birth, because, in the parents’ perspective, all these forces increase the marginal utility of boys relative to girls.

Zhang et al. ( 1999 ) show that, if human capital transmission from parents to children is efficient enough, the economy grows endogenously. When boys have a higher human capital endowment than girls, and the survival probability of sons is not smaller than the survival probability of daughters, then only sons provide old-age support. Anticipating this, parents invest more in the human capital of their sons than on the human capital of their daughters. As a result, the gender gap in human capital at birth widens endogenously.

When only boys provide old-age support, an exogenous increase in son preference harms long-run economic growth. The reason is that, when son preference increases, parents enjoy each son relatively more and demand less old-age support from him. Other things equal, parents want to “consume” more sons now and less old-age support later. Because parents want more sons, the sex ratio at birth increases; but because each son provides less old-age support, human capital investments per son decrease (such that the gender gap in human capital narrows). At the aggregate level, the pace of human capital accumulation slows down and, in the long run, economic growth is lower. Thus, an exogenous increase in son preference increases the sex ratio at birth, and reduces human capital accumulation and long-run growth (although it narrows the gender gap in education).

In summary, in growth models with unitary households, gender inequality is closely linked to the division of labor between family members. If women earn relatively less in market activities, they specialize in childrearing and home production, while men specialize in market work. And precisely due to this division of labor, the returns to female educational investments are relatively low. These household behaviors translate into higher fertility and lower human capital and thus pose a barrier to long-run development.

4 Intra-household bargaining: husbands and wives

In this section, we review models populated with non-unitary households, where decisions are the result of bargaining between the spouses. There are two broad types of bargaining processes: non-cooperative, where spouses act independently or interact in a non-cooperative game that often leads to inefficient outcomes (e.g., Doepke & Tertilt 2019 , Heath & Tan 2020 ); and cooperative, where the spouses are assumed to achieve an efficient outcome (e.g., De la Croix & Vander Donckt 2010 ; Diebolt & Perrin 2013 ). As in the previous section, all of these non-unitary models take the household as given, thereby abstracting from marriage markets or other household formation institutions, which will be discussed separately in section 5 . When preferences differ by gender, bargaining between the spouses matters for economic growth. If women care more about child quality than men do and human capital accumulation is the main engine of growth, then empowering women leads to faster economic growth (Prettner & Strulik 2017 ). If, however, men and women have similar preferences but are imperfect substitutes in the production of household public goods, then empowering women has an ambiguous effect on economic growth (Doepke & Tertilt 2019 ).

A separate channel concerns the intergenerational transmission of human capital and woman’s role as the main caregiver of children. If the education of the mother matters more than the education of the father in the production of children’s human capital, then empowering women will be conducive to growth (Agénor 2017 ; Diebolt & Perrin 2013 ), with the returns to education playing a crucial role in the political economy of female empowerment (Doepke & Tertilt 2009 ).

However, different dimensions of gender inequality have different growth impacts along the development process (De la Croix & Vander Donckt 2010 ). Policies that improve gender equality across many dimensions can be particularly effective for economic growth by reaping complementarities and positive externalities (Agénor 2017 ).

The idea that women might have stronger preferences for child-related expenditures than men can be easily incorporated in a Beckerian model of fertility. The necessary assumption is that women place a higher weight on child quality (relative to child quantity) than men do. Prettner & Strulik ( 2017 ) build a unified growth theory model with collective households. Men and women have different preferences, but they achieve efficient cooperation based on (reduced-form) bargaining parameters. The authors study the effect of two types of preferences: (i) women are assumed to have a relative preference for child quality, while men have a relative preference for child quantity; and (ii) parents are assumed to have a relative preference for the education of sons over the education of daughters. In addition, it is assumed that the time cost of childcare borne by men cannot be above that borne by women (but it could be the same).

When women have a relative preference for child quality, increasing female empowerment speeds up the economy’s escape from a Malthusian trap of high fertility, low education, and low income per capita. When female empowerment increases (exogenously), a woman’s relative preference for child quality has a higher impact on household’s decisions. As a consequence, fertility falls, human capital accumulates, and the economy starts growing. The model also predicts that the more preferences for child quality differ between husband and wife, the more effective is female empowerment in raising long-run per capita income, because the sooner the economy escapes the Malthusian trap. This effect is not affected by whether parents have a preference for the education of boys relative to that of girls. If, however, men and women have similar preferences with respect to the quantity and quality of their children, then female empowerment does not affect the timing of the transition to the sustained growth regime.

Strulik ( 2019 ) goes one step further and endogeneizes why men seem to prefer having more children than women. The reason is a different preference for sexual activity: other things equal, men enjoy having sex more than women. Footnote 17 When cheap and effective contraception is not available, a higher male desire for sexual activity explains why men also prefer to have more children than women. In a traditional economy, where no contraception is available, fertility is high, while human capital and economic growth are low. When female bargaining power increases, couples reduce their sexual activity, fertility declines, and human capital accumulates faster. Faster human capital accumulation increases household income and, as a consequence, the demand for contraception goes up. As contraception use increases, fertility declines further. Eventually, the economy undergoes a fertility transition and moves to a modern regime with low fertility, widespread use of contraception, high human capital, and high economic growth. In the modern regime, because contraception is widely used, men’s desire for sex is decoupled from fertility. Both sex and children cost time and money. When the two are decoupled, men prefer to have more sex at the expense of the number of children. There is a reversal in the gender gap in desired fertility. When contraceptives are not available, men desire more children than women; once contraceptives are widely used, men desire fewer children than women. If women are more empowered, the transition from the traditional equilibrium to the modern equilibrium occurs faster.

Both Prettner & Strulik ( 2017 ) and Strulik ( 2019 ) rely on gender-specific preferences. In contrast, Doepke & Tertilt ( 2019 ) are able to explain gender-specific expenditure patterns without having to assume that men and women have different preferences. They set up a non-cooperative model of household decision making and ask whether more female control of household resources leads to higher child expenditures and, thus, to economic development. Footnote 18

In their model, household public goods are produced with two inputs: time and goods. Instead of a single home-produced good (as in most models), there is a continuum of household public goods whose production technologies differ. Some public goods are more time-intensive to produce, while others are more goods-intensive. Each specific public good can only be produced by one spouse—i.e., time and good inputs are not separable. Women face wage discrimination in the labor market, so their opportunity cost of time is lower than men’s. As a result, women specialize in the production of the most time-intensive household public goods (e.g., childrearing activities), while men specialize in the production of goods-intensive household public goods (e.g., housing infrastructure). Notice that, because the household is non-cooperative, there is not only a division of labor between husband and wife, but also a division of decision making, since ultimately each spouse decides how much to provide of his or her public goods.

When household resources are redistributed from men to women (i.e., from the high-wage spouse to the low-wage spouse), women provide more public goods, in relative terms. It is ambiguous, however, whether the total provision of public goods increases with the re-distributive transfer. In a classic model of gender-specific preferences, a wife increases child expenditures and her own private consumption at the expense of the husband’s private consumption. In Doepke & Tertilt ( 2019 ), however, the rise in child expenditures (and time-intensive public goods in general) comes at the expense of male consumption and male-provided public goods.

Parents contribute to the welfare of the next generation in two ways: via human capital investments (time-intensive, typically done by the mother) and bequests of physical capital (goods-intensive, typically done by the father). Transferring resources to women increases human capital, but reduces the stock of physical capital. The effect of such transfers on economic growth depends on whether the aggregate production function is relatively intensive in human capital or in physical capital. If aggregate production is relatively human capital intensive, then transfers to women boost economic growth; if it is relatively intensive in physical capital, then transfers to women may reduce economic growth.

There is an interesting paradox here. On the one hand, transfers to women will be growth-enhancing in economies where production is intensive in human capital. These would be more developed, knowledge intensive, service economies. On the other hand, the positive growth effect of transfers to women increases with the size of the gender wage gap, that is, decreases with female empowerment. But the more advanced, human capital intensive economies are also the ones with more female empowerment (i.e., lower gender wage gaps). In other words, in settings where human capital investments are relatively beneficial, the contribution of female empowerment to human capital accumulation is reduced. Overall, Doepke and Tertilt’s ( 2019 ) model predicts that female empowerment has at best a limited positive effect and at worst a negative effect on economic growth.

Heath & Tan ( 2020 ) argue that, in a non-cooperative household model, income transfers to women may increase female labor supply. Footnote 19 This result may appear counter-intuitive at first, because in collective household models unearned income unambiguously reduces labor supply through a negative income effect. In Heath and Tan’s model, husband and wife derive utility from leisure, consuming private goods, and consuming a household public good. The spouses decide separately on labor supply and monetary contributions to the household public good. Men and women are identical in preferences and behavior, but women have limited control over resources, with a share of their income being captured by the husband. Female control over resources (i.e., autonomy) depends positively on the wife’s relative contribution to household income. Thus, an income transfer to the wife, keeping husband unearned income constant, raises the fraction of her own income that she privately controls. This autonomy effect unambiguously increases women’s labor supply, because the wife can now reap an additional share of her wage bill. Whenever the autonomy effect dominates the (negative) income effect, female labor supply increases. The net effect will be heterogeneous over the wage distribution, but the authors show that aggregate female labor supply is always weakly larger after the income transfer.

Diebolt & Perrin ( 2013 ) assume cooperative bargaining between husband and wife, but do not rely on sex-specific preferences or differences in ability. Men and women are only distinguished by different uses of their time endowments, with females in charge of all childrearing activities. In line with this labor division, the authors further assume that only the mother’s human capital is inherited by the child at birth. On top of the inherited maternal endowment, individuals can accumulate human capital during adulthood, through schooling. The higher the initial human capital endowment, the more effective is the accumulation of human capital via schooling.

A woman’s bargaining power in marriage determines her share in total household consumption and is a function of the relative female human capital of the previous generation. An increase in the human capital of mothers relative to that of fathers has two effects. First, it raises the incentives for human capital accumulation of the next generation, because inherited maternal human capital makes schooling more effective. Second, it raises the bargaining power of the next generation of women and, because women’s consumption share increases, boosts the returns on women’s education. The second effect is not internalized in women’s time allocation decisions; it is an intergenerational externality. Thus, an exogenous increase in women’s bargaining power would promote economic growth by speeding up the accumulation of human capital across overlapping generations.

De la Croix & Vander Donckt ( 2010 ) contribute to the literature by clearly distinguishing between different gender gaps: a gap in the probability of survival, a wage gap, a social and institutional gap, and a gender education gap. The first three are exogenously given, while the fourth is determined within the model.

By assumption, men and women have identical preferences and ability, but women pay the full time cost of childrearing. As in a typical collective household model, bargaining power is partially determined by the spouses’ earnings potential (i.e., their levels of human capital and their wage rates). But there is also a component of bargaining power that is exogenous and captures social norms that discriminate against women—this is the social and institutional gender gap.

Husbands and wives bargain over fertility and human capital investments for their children. A standard Beckerian result emerges: parents invest relatively less in the education of girls, because girls will be more time-constrained than boys and, therefore, the female returns to education are lower in relative terms.

There are at least two regimes in the economy: a corner regime and an interior regime. The corner regime consists of maximum fertility, full gender specialization (no women in the labor market), and large gender gaps in education (no education for girls). Reducing the wage gap or the social and institutional gap does not help the economy escaping this regime. Women are not in labor force, so the wage gap is meaningless. The social and institutional gap will determine women’s share in household consumption, but does not affect fertility and growth. At this stage, the only effective instruments for escaping the corner regime are reducing the gender survival gap or reducing child mortality. Reducing the gender survival gap increases women’s lifespan, which increases their time budget and attracts them to the labor market. Reducing child mortality decreases the time costs of kids, therefore drawing women into the labor market. In both cases, fertility decreases.

In the interior regime, fertility is below the maximum, women’s labor supply is above zero, and both boys and girls receive education. In this regime, with endogenous bargaining power, reducing all gender gaps will boost economic growth. Footnote 20 Thus, depending on the growth regime, some gender gaps affect economic growth, while others do not. Accordingly, the policy-maker should tackle different dimensions of gender inequality at different stages of the development process.

Agénor ( 2017 ) presents a computable general equilibrium that includes many of the elements of gender inequality reviewed so far. An important contribution of the model is to explicitly add the government as an agent whose policies interact with family decisions and, therefore, will impact women’s time allocation. Workers produce a market good and a home good and are organized in collective households. Bargaining power depends on the spouses’ relative human capital levels. By assumption, there is gender discrimination in market wages against women. On top, mothers are exclusively responsible for home production and childrearing, which takes the form of time spent improving children’s health and education. But public investments in education and health also improve these outcomes during childhood. Likewise, public investment in public infrastructure contributes positively to home production. In particular, the ratio of public infrastructure capital stock to private capital stock is a substitute for women’s time in home production. The underlying idea is that improving sanitation, transportation, and other infrastructure reduces time spent in home production. Health status in adulthood depends on health status in childhood, which, in turn, relates positively to mother’s health, her time inputs into childrearing, and government spending. Children’s human capital depends on similar factors, except that mother’s human capital replaces her health as an input. Additionally, women are assumed to derive less utility from current consumption and more utility from children’s health relative to men. Wives are also assumed to live longer than their husbands, which further down-weights female’s emphasis on current consumption. The final gendered assumption is that mother’s time use is biased towards boys. This bias alone creates a gender gap in education and health. As adults, women’s relative lower health and human capital are translated into relative lower bargaining power in household decisions.

Agénor ( 2017 ) calibrates this rich setup for Benin, a low income country, and runs a series of policy experiments on different dimensions of gender inequality: a fall in childrearing costs, a fall in gender pay discrimination, a fall in son bias in mother’s time allocation, and an exogenous increase in female bargaining power. Footnote 21 Interestingly, despite all policies improving gender equality in separate dimensions, not all unambiguously stimulate economic growth. For example, falling childrearing costs raise savings and private investments, which are growth-enhancing, but increase fertility (as children become ‘cheaper’) and reduce maternal time investment per child, thus reducing growth. In contrast, a fall in gender pay discrimination always leads to higher growth, through higher household income that, in turn, boosts savings, tax revenues, and public spending. Higher public spending further contributes to improved health and education of the next generation. Lastly, Agénor ( 2017 ) simulates the effect of a combined policy that improves gender equality in all domains simultaneously. Due to complementarities and positive externalities across dimensions, the combined policy generates more economic growth than the sum of the individual policies. Footnote 22

In the models reviewed so far, men are passive observers of women’s empowerment. Doepke & Tertilt ( 2009 ) set up an interesting political economy model of women’s rights, where men make the decisive choice. Their model is motivated by the fact that, historically, the economic rights of women were expanded before their political rights. Because the granting of economic rights empowers women in the household, and this was done before women were allowed to participate in the political process, the relevant question is why did men willingly share their power with their wives?

Doepke & Tertilt ( 2009 ) answer this question by arguing that men face a fundamental trade-off. On the one hand, husbands would vote for their wives to have no rights whatsoever, because husbands prefer as much intra-household bargaining power as possible. But, on the other hand, fathers would vote for their daughters to have economic rights in their future households. In addition, fathers want their children to marry highly educated spouses, and grandfathers want their grandchildren to be highly educated. By assumption, men and women have different preferences, with women having a relative preference for child quality over quantity. Accordingly, men internalize that, when women become empowered, human capital investments increase, making their children and grandchildren better-off.

Skill-biased (exogenous) technological progress that raises the returns to education over time can shift male incentives along this trade-off. When the returns to education are low, men prefer to make all decisions on their own and deny all rights to women. But once the returns to education are sufficiently high, men voluntarily share their power with women by granting them economic rights. As a result, human capital investments increase and the economy grows faster.

In summary, gender inequality in labor market earnings often implies power asymmetries within the household, with men having more bargaining power than women. If preferences differ by gender and female preferences are more conducive to development, then empowering women is beneficial for growth. When preferences are the same and the bargaining process is non-cooperative, the implications are less clear-cut, and more context-specific. If, in addition, women’s empowerment is curtailed by law (e.g., restrictions on women’s economic rights), then it is important to understand the political economy of women’s rights, in which men are crucial actors.

5 Marriage markets and household formation

Two-sex models of economic growth have largely ignored how households are formed. The marriage market is not explicitly modeled: spouses are matched randomly, marriage is universal and monogamous, and families are nuclear. In reality, however, household formation patterns vary substantially across societies, with some of these differences extending far back in history. For example, Hajnal ( 1965 , 1982 ) described a distinct household formation pattern in preindustrial Northwestern Europe (often referred to as the “European Marriage Pattern”) characterized by: (i) late ages at first marriage for women, (ii) most marriages done under individual consent, and (iii) neolocality (i.e., upon marriage, the bride and the groom leave their parental households to form a new household). In contrast, marriage systems in China and India consisted of: (i) very early female ages at first marriage, (ii) arranged marriages, and (iii) patrilocality (i.e., the bride joins the parental household of the groom).

Economic historians argue that the “European Marriage Pattern” empowered women, encouraging their participation in market activities and reducing fertility levels. While some view this as one of the deep-rooted factors explaining Northwestern Europe’s earlier takeoff to sustained economic growth (e.g., Carmichael, de Pleijt, van Zanden and De Moor 2016 ; De Moor & Van Zanden 2010 ; Hartman 2004 ), others have downplayed the long-run significance of this marriage pattern (e.g., Dennison & Ogilvie 2014 ; Ruggles 2009 ). Despite this lively debate, the topic has been largely ignored by growth theorists. The few exceptions are Voigtländer and Voth ( 2013 ), Edlund and Lagerlöf ( 2006 ), and Tertilt ( 2005 , 2006 ).

After exploring different marriage institutions, we zoom in on contemporary monogamous and consensual marriage and review models where gender inequality affects economic growth through marriage markets that facilitate household formation (Du & Wei 2013 ; Grossbard & Pereira 2015 ; Grossbard-Shechtman 1984 ; Guvenen & Rendall 2015 ). In contrast with the previous two sections, where the household is the starting point of the analysis, the literature on marriage markets and household formation recognizes that marriage, labor supply, and investment decisions are interlinked. The analysis of these interlinkages is sometimes done with unitary households (upon marriage) (Du & Wei 2013 ; Guvenen & Rendall 2015 ), or with non-cooperative models of individual decision-making within households (Grossbard & Pereira 2015 ; Grossbard-Shechtman 1984 ).

Voigtländer and Voth ( 2013 ) argue that the emergence of the “European Marriage Pattern” is a direct consequence of the mid-fourteen century Black Death. They set up a two-sector agricultural economy consisting of physically demanding cereal farming, and less physically demanding pastoral production. The economy is populated by many male and female peasants and by a class of idle, rent-maximizing landlords. Female peasants are heterogeneous with respect to physical strength, but, on average, are assumed to have less brawn relative to male peasants and, thus, have a comparative advantage in the pastoral sector. Both sectors use land as a production input, although the pastoral sector is more land-intensive than cereal production. All land is owned by the landlords, who can rent it out for peasant cereal farming, or use it for large-scale livestock farming, for which they hire female workers. Crucially, women can only work and earn wages in the pastoral sector as long as they are unmarried. Footnote 23 Peasant women decide when to marry and, upon marriage, a peasant couple forms a new household, where husband and wife both work on cereal farming, and have children at a given time frequency. Thus, the only contraceptive method available is delaying marriage. Because women derive utility from consumption and children, they face a trade-off between earned income and marriage.

Initially, the economy rests in a Malthusian regime, where land-labor ratios are relatively low, making the land-intensive pastoral sector unattractive and depressing relative female wages. As a result, women marry early and fertility is high. The initial regime ends in 1348–1350, when the Black Death kills between one third and half of Europe’s population, exogenously generating land abundance and, therefore, raising the relative wages of female labor in pastoral production. Women postpone marriage to reap higher wages, and fertility decreases—moving the economy to a regime of late marriages and low fertility.

In addition to late marital ages and reduced fertility, another important feature of the “European Marriage Pattern” was individual consent for marriage. Edlund and Lagerlöf ( 2006 ) study how rules of consent for marriage influence long-run economic development. In their model, marriages can be formed according to two types of consent rules: individual consent or parental consent. Under individual consent, young people are free to marry whomever they wish, while, under parental consent, their parents are in charge of arranging the marriage. Depending on the prevailing rule, the recipient of the bride-price differs. Under individual consent, a woman receives the bride-price from her husband, whereas, under parental consent, her father receives the bride-price from the father of the groom. Footnote 24 In both situations, the father of the groom owns the labor income of his son and, therefore, pays the bride-price, either directly, under parental consent, or indirectly, under individual consent. Under individual consent, the father needs to transfer resources to his son to nudge him into marrying. Thus, individual consent implies a transfer of resources from the old to the young and from men to women, relative to the rule of parental consent. Redistributing resources from the old to the young boosts long-run economic growth. Because the young have a longer timespan to extract income from their children’s labor, they invest relatively more in the human capital of the next generation. In addition, under individual consent, the reallocation of resources from men to women can have additional positive effects on growth, by increasing women’s bargaining power (see section 4 ), although this channel is not explicitly modeled in Edlund and Lagerlöf ( 2006 ).

Tertilt ( 2005 ) explores the effects of polygyny on long-run development through its impact on savings and fertility. In her model, parental consent applies to women, while individual consent applies to men. There is a competitive marriage market where fathers sell their daughters and men buy their wives. As each man is allowed (and wants) to marry several wives, a positive bride-price emerges in equilibrium. Footnote 25 Upon marriage, the reproductive rights of the bride are transferred from her father to her husband, who makes all fertility decisions on his own and, in turn, owns the reproductive rights of his daughters. From a father’s perspective, daughters are investments goods; they can be sold in the marriage market, at any time. This feature generates additional demand for daughters, which increases overall fertility, and reduces the incentives to save, which decreases the stock of physical capital. Under monogamy, in contrast, the equilibrium bride-price is negative (i.e., a dowry). The reason is that maintaining unmarried daughters is costly for their fathers, so they are better-off paying a (small enough) dowry to their future husbands. In this setting, the economic returns to daughters are lower and, consequently, so is the demand for children. Fertility decreases and savings increase. Thus, moving from polygny to monogamy lowers population growth and raises the capital stock in the long run, which translates into higher output per capita in the steady state.

Instead of enforcing monogamy in a traditionally polygynous setting, an alternative policy is to transfer marriage consent from fathers to daughters. Tertilt ( 2006 ) shows that when individual consent is extended to daughters, such that fathers do not receive the bride-price anymore, the consequences are qualitatively similar to a ban on polygyny. If fathers stop receiving the bride-price, they save more physical capital. In the long run, per capita output is higher when consent is transferred to daughters.

Grossbard-Shechtman ( 1984 ) develops the first non-cooperative model where (monogamous) marriage, home production, and labor supply decisions are interdependent. Footnote 26 Spouses are modeled as separate agents deciding over production and consumption. Marriage becomes an implicit contract for ‘work-in-household’ (WiHo), defined as “an activity that benefits another household member [typically a spouse] who could potentially compensate the individual for these efforts” (Grossbard 2015 , p. 21). Footnote 27 In particular, each spouse decides how much labor to supply to market work and WiHo, and how much labor to demand from the other spouse for WiHo. Through this lens, spousal decisions over the intra-marriage distribution of consumption and WiHo are akin to well-known principal-agent problems faced between firms and workers. In the marriage market equilibrium, a spouse benefiting from WiHo (the principal) must compensate the spouse producing it (the agent) via intra-household transfers (of goods or leisure). Footnote 28 Grossbard-Shechtman ( 1984 ) and Grossbard ( 2015 ) show that, under these conditions, the ratio of men to women (i.e., the sex ratio) in the marriage market is inversely related to female labor supply to the market. The reason is that, as the pool of potential wives shrinks, prospective husbands have to increase compensation for female WiHo. From the potential wife’s point of view, as the equilibrium price for her WiHo increases, market work becomes less attractive. Conversely, when sex ratios are lower, female labor supply outside the home increases. Although the model does not explicit derive growth implications, the relative increase in female labor supply is expected to be beneficial for economic growth, as argued by many of the theories reviewed so far.

In an extension of this framework, Grossbard & Pereira ( 2015 ) analyze how sex ratios affect gendered savings over the marital life-cycle. Assuming that women supply a disproportionate amount of labor for WiHo (due, for example, to traditional gender norms), the authors show that men and women will have very distinct saving trajectories. A higher sex ratio increases savings by single men, who anticipate higher compensation transfers for their wives’ WiHo, whereas it decreases savings by single women, who anticipate receiving those transfers upon marriage. But the pattern flips after marriage: precautionary savings raise among married women, because the possibility of marriage dissolution entails a loss of income from WiHo. The opposite effect happens for married men: marriage dissolution would imply less expenditures in the future. The higher the sex ratio, the higher will be the equilibrium compensation paid by husbands for their wives’ WiHo. Therefore, the sex ratio will positively affect savings among single men and married women, but negatively affect savings among single women and married men. The net effect on the aggregate savings rate and on economic growth will depend on the relative size of these demographic groups.

In a related article, Du & Wei ( 2013 ) propose a model where higher sex ratios worsen marriage markets prospects for young men and their families, who react by increasing savings. Women in turn reduce savings. However, because sex ratios shift the composition of the population in favor of men (high saving type) relative to women (low saving type) and men save additionally to compensate for women’s dis-saving, aggregate savings increase unambiguously with sex ratios.

In Guvenen & Rendall ( 2015 ), female education is, in part, demanded as insurance against divorce risk. The reason is that divorce laws often protect spouses’ future labor market earnings (i.e., returns to human capital), but force them to share their physical assets. Because, in the model, women are more likely to gain custody of their children after divorce, they face higher costs from divorce relative to their husbands. Therefore, the higher the risk of divorce, the more women invest in human capital, as insurance against a future vulnerable economic position. Guvenen & Rendall ( 2015 ) shows that, over time, divorce risk has increased (for example, consensual divorce became replaced by unilateral divorce in most US states in the 1970s). In the aggregate, higher divorce risk boosted female education and female labor supply.

In summary, the rules regulating marriage and household formation carry relevant theoretical consequences for economic development. While the few studies on this topic have focused on age at marriage, consent rules and polygyny, and the interaction between sex ratios, marriage, and labor supply, other features of the marriage market remain largely unexplored (Borella, De Nardi and Yang 2018 ). Growth theorists would benefit from further incorporating theories of household formation in gendered macro models. Footnote 29

6 Conclusion

In this article, we surveyed micro-founded theories linking gender inequality to economic development. This literature offers many plausible mechanisms through which inequality between men and women affects the aggregate economy (see Table 1 ). Yet, we believe the body of theories could be expanded in several directions. We discuss them below and highlight lessons for policy.

The first direction for future research concerns control over fertility. In models where fertility is endogenous, households are always able to achieve their preferred number of children (see Strulik 2019 , for an exception). The implicit assumption is that there is a free and infallible method of fertility control available for all households—a view rejected by most demographers. The gap between desired fertility and achieved fertility can be endogeneized at three levels. First, at the societal level, the diffusion of particular contraceptive methods may be influenced by cultural and religious norms. Second, at the household level, fertility control may be object of non-cooperative bargaining between the spouses, in particular, for contraceptive methods that only women perfectly observe (Ashraf, Field and Lee 2014 ; Doepke & Kindermann 2019 ). More generally, the role of asymmetric information within the household is not yet explored (Walther 2017 ). Third, if parents have preferences over the gender composition of their offspring, fertility is better modeled as a sequential and uncertain process, where household size is likely endogenous to the sex of the last born child (Hazan & Zoabi 2015 ).

A second direction worth exploring concerns gender inequality in a historical perspective. In models with multiple equilibria, an economy’s path is often determined by its initial level of gender equality. Therefore, it would be useful to develop theories explaining why initial conditions varied across societies. In particular, there is a large literature on economic and demographic history documenting how systems of marriage and household formation differed substantially across preindustrial societies (e.g., De Moor & Van Zanden 2010 ; Hajnal 1965 , 1982 ; Hartman 2004 ; Ruggles 2009 ). In our view, more theoretical work is needed to explain both the origins and the consequences of these historical systems.

A third avenue for future research concerns the role of technological change. In several models, technological change is the exogenous force that ultimately erodes gender gaps in education or labor supply (e.g., Bloom et al. 2015 ; Doepke & Tertilt 2009 ; Galor & Weil 1996 ). For that to happen, technological progress is assumed to be skill-biased, thus raising the returns to education—or, in other words, favoring brain over brawn. As such, new technologies make male advantage in physical strength ever more irrelevant, while making female time spent on childrearing and housework ever more expensive. Moreover, recent technological progress increased the efficiency of domestic activities, thereby relaxing women’s time constraints (e.g., Cavalcanti & Tavares 2008 ; Greenwood, Seshadri and Yorukoglu 2005 ). These mechanisms are plausible, but other aspects of technological change need not be equally favorable for women. In many countries, for example, the booming science, technology, and engineering sectors tend to be particularly male-intensive. And Tejani & Milberg ( 2016 ) provide evidence for developing countries that as manufacturing industries become more capital intensive, their female employment share decreases.

Even if current technological progress is assumed to weaken gender gaps, historically, technology may have played exactly the opposite role. If technology today is more complementary to brain, in the past it could have been more complementary to brawn. An example is the plow that, relative to alternative technologies for field preparation (e.g., hoe, digging stick), requires upper body strength, on which men have a comparative advantage over women (Alesina, Giuliano and Nunn 2013 ; Boserup 1970 ). Another, even more striking example, is the invention of agriculture itself—the Neolithic Revolution. The transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to sedentary agriculture involved a relative loss of status for women (Dyble et al. 2015 ; Hansen, Jensen and Skovsgaard 2015 ). One explanation is that property rights on land were captured by men, who had an advantage on physical strength and, consequently, on physical violence. Thus, in the long view of human history, technological change appears to have shifted from being male-biased towards being female-biased. Endogeneizing technological progress and its interaction with gender inequality is a promising avenue for future research.

Fourth, open economy issues are still almost entirely absent. An exception is Rees & Riezman ( 2012 ), who model the effect of globalization on economic growth. Whether global capital flows generate jobs primarily in female or male intensive sectors matters for long-run growth. If globalization creates job opportunities for women, their bargaining power increases and households trade off child quantity by child quality. Fertility falls, human capital accumulates, and long-run per capita output is high. If, on the other hand, globalization creates jobs for men, their intra-household power increases; fertility increases, human capital decreases, and steady-state income per capita is low. The literature would benefit from engaging with open economy demand-driven models of the feminist tradition, such as Blecker & Seguino ( 2002 ), Seguino ( 2010 ). Other fruitful avenues for future research on open economy macro concern gender analysis of global value chains (Barrientos 2019 ), gendered patterns of international migration (Cortes 2015 ; Cortes & Tessada 2011 ), and the diffusion of gender norms through globalization (Beine, Docquier and Schiff 2013 ; Klasen 2020 ; Tuccio & Wahba 2018 ).

A final point concerns the role of men in this literature. In most theoretical models, gender inequality is not the result of an active male project that seeks the domination of women. Instead, inequality emerges as a rational best response to some underlying gender gap in endowments or constraints. Then, as the underlying gap becomes less relevant—for example, due to skill-biased technological change—, men passively relinquish their power (see Doepke & Tertilt 2009 , for an exception). There is never a male backlash against the short-term power loss that necessarily comes with female empowerment. In reality, it is more likely that men actively oppose losing power and resources towards women (Folbre 2020 ; Kabeer 2016 ; Klasen 2020 ). This possibility has not yet been explored in formal models, even though it could threaten the typical virtuous cycle between gender equality and growth. If men are forward-looking, and the short-run losses outweigh the dynamic gains from higher growth, they might ensure that women never get empowered to begin with. Power asymmetries tend to be sticky, because “any group that is able to claim a disproportionate share of the gains from cooperation can develop social institutions to fortify their position” (Folbre 2020 , p. 199). For example, Eswaran & Malhotra ( 2011 ) set up a household decision model where men use domestic violence against their wives as a tool to enhance male bargaining power. Thus, future theories should recognize more often that men have a vested interest on the process of female empowerment.

More generally, policymakers should pay attention to the possibility of a male backlash as an unintended consequence of female empowerment policies (Erten & Keskin 2018 ; Eswaran & Malhotra 2011 ). Likewise, whereas most theories reviewed here link lower fertility to higher economic growth, the relationship is non-monotonic. Fertility levels below the replacement rate will eventually generate aggregate social costs in the form of smaller future workforces, rapidly ageing societies, and increased pressure on welfare systems, to name a few.

Many theories presented in this survey make another important practical point: public policies should recognize that gender gaps in separate dimensions complement and reinforce one another and, therefore, have to be dealt with simultaneously. A naïve policy targeting a single gap in isolation is unlikely to have substantial growth effects in the short run. Typically, inequalities in separate dimensions are not independent from each other (Agénor 2017 ; Bandiera & Does 2013 ; Duflo 2012 ; Kabeer 2016 ). For example, if credit-constrained women face weak property rights, are unable to access certain markets, and have mobility and time constraints, then the marginal return to capital may nevertheless be larger for men. Similarly, the return to male education may well be above the female return if demand for female labor is low or concentrated in sectors with low productivity. In sum, “the fact that women face multiple constraints means that relaxing just one may not improve outcomes” (Duflo 2012 , p. 1076).

Promising policy directions that would benefit from further macroeconomic research are the role of public investments in physical infrastructure and care provision (Agénor 2017 ; Braunstein, Bouhia and Seguino 2020 ), gender-based taxation (Guner, Kaygusuz and Ventura 2012 ; Meier & Rainer 2015 ), and linkages between gender equality and pro-environmental agendas (Matsumoto 2014 ).

See Echevarria & Moe ( 2000 ) for a similar complaint that “theories of economic growth and development have consistently neglected to include gender as a variable” (p. 77).

A non-exhaustive list includes Bandiera & Does ( 2013 ), Braunstein ( 2013 ), Cuberes & Teignier ( 2014 ), Duflo ( 2012 ), Kabeer ( 2016 ), Kabeer & Natali ( 2013 ), Klasen ( 2018 ), Seguino ( 2013 , 2020 ), Sinha et al. ( 2007 ), Stotsky ( 2006 ), World Bank ( 2001 , 2011 ).

For an in-depth history of “new home economics” see Grossbard-Shechtman ( 2001 ) and Grossbard ( 2010 , 2011 ).

For recent empirical reviews see Duflo ( 2012 ) and Doss ( 2013 ).

Although the unitary approach has being rejected on theoretical (e.g., Echevarria & Moe 2000 ; Folbre 1986 ; Knowles 2013 ; Sen 1989 ) and empirical grounds (e.g., Doss 2013 ; Duflo 2003 ; Lundberg et al. 1997 ), these early models are foundational to the subsequent literature. As it turns out, some of the key mechanisms survive in non-unitary theories of the household.

For nice conceptual perspectives on conflict and cooperation in households see Sen ( 1989 ), Grossbard ( 2011 ), and Folbre ( 2020 ).

The relationship depicted in Fig. 1 is robust to using other composite measures of gender equality (e.g., UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index or OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) (see Branisa, Klasen and Ziegler 2013 )), and other years besides 2000. In Fig. 2 , the linear prediction explains 56 percent of the cross-country variation in per capita income.

See Seguino ( 2013 , 2020 ) for a review of this literature.

The model allows for sorting on ability (“some people are better teachers”) or sorting on occupation-specific preferences (“others derive more utility from working as a teacher”) (Hsieh et al. 2019 , p. 1441). Here, we restrict our presentation to the case where sorting occurs primarily on ability. The authors find little empirical support for sorting on preferences.

Because the home sector is treated as any other occupation, the model can capture, in a reduced-form fashion, social norms on women’s labor force participation. For example, a social norm on traditional gender roles can be represented as a utility premium obtained by all women working on the home sector.

Note, however, that discrimination against women raises productivity in the non-agricultural sector. The reason is that the few women who end up working outside agriculture are positively selected on talent. Lee ( 2020 ) shows that this countervailing effect is modest and dominated by the loss of productivity in agriculture.

This is not the classic Beckerian quantity-quality trade-off because parents cannot invest in the quality of their children. Instead, the mechanism is built by assumption in the household’s utility function. When women’s wages increase relative to male wages, the substitution effect dominates the income effect.

The hypothesis that female labor force participation and economic development have a U-shaped relationship—known as the feminization-U hypothesis—goes back to Boserup ( 1970 ). See also Goldin ( 1995 ). Recently, Gaddis & Klasen ( 2014 ) find only limited empirical support for the feminization-U.

The model does not consider fertility decisions. Parents derive utility from their children’s human capital (social status utility). When household income increases, parents want to “consume” more social status by investing in their children’s education—this is the positive income effect.

Bloom et al. ( 2015 ) build their main model with unitary households, but show that the key conclusions are robust to a collective representation of the household.

This assumption does not necessarily mean that boys are more talented than girls. It can be also interpreted as a reduced-form way of capturing labor market discrimination against women.

Many empirical studies are in line with this assumption, which is rooted in evolutionary psychology. See Strulik ( 2019 ) for references. There are several other evolutionary arguments for men wanting more children (including with different women). See, among others, Mulder & Rauch ( 2009 ), Penn & Smith ( 2007 ), von Rueden & Jaeggi ( 2016 ). However, for a different view, see Fine ( 2017 ).

They do not model fertility decisions. So there is no quantity-quality trade-off.

In their empirical application, Heath & Tan ( 2020 ) study the Hindu Succession Act, which, through improved female inheritance rights, increased the lifetime unearned income of Indian women. Other policies consistent with the model are, for example, unconditional cash transfers to women.

De la Croix & Vander Donckt ( 2010 ) show this with numerical simulations, because the interior regime becomes analytically intractable.

We focus on gender-related policies in our presentation, but the article simulates additional public policies.

Agénor and Agénor ( 2014 ) develop a similar model, but with unitary households, and Agénor and Canuto ( 2015 ) have a similar model of collective households for Brazil, where adult women can also invest time in human capital formation. Since public infrastructure substitutes for women’s time in home production, more (or better) infrastructure can free up time for female human capital accumulation and, thus, endogenously increase wives’ bargaining power.

Voigtländer and Voth ( 2013 ) justify this assumption arguing that, in England, employment contracts for farm servants working in animal husbandry were conditional on celibacy. However, see Edwards & Ogilvie ( 2018 ) for a critique of this assumption.

The bride-price under individual consent need not be paid explicitly as a lump-sum transfer. It could, instead, be paid to the bride implicitly in the form of higher lifetime consumption.

In Tertilt ( 2005 ), all men are similar (except in age). Widespread polygyny is possible because older men marry younger women and population growth is high. This setup reflects stylized facts for Sub-Saharan Africa. It differs from models that assume male heterogeneity in endowments, where polygyny emerges because a rich male elite owns several wives, while poor men remain single (e.g., Gould, Moav and Simhon 2008 ; Lagerlöf 2005 , 2010 ).

See Grossbard ( 2015 ) for more details and extensions of this model and Grossbard ( 2018 ) for a non-technical overview of the related literature. For an earlier application, see Grossbard ( 1976 ).

The concept of WiHo is closely related but not equivalent to the ‘black-box’ term home production used by much of the literature. It also relates to feminist perspectives on care and social reproduction labor (c.f. Folbre 1994 ).

In the general setup, the model need not lead to a corner solution where only one spouse specializes in WiHo.

For promising approaches, see, among others, Cubeddu and Ríos-Rull ( 2003 ), Goussé, Jacquemet and Robin ( 2017 ), Greenwood, Guner, Kocharkov and Santos ( 2016 ), Guler, Guvenen and Violante ( 2012 ), Walther ( 2017 ), Wong ( 2016 ).

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We thank the Editor, Shoshana Grossbard, and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) initiative, a multi-funder partnership between the UK’s Department for International Development, the Hewlett Foundation and the International Development Research Centre. All views expressed here and remaining errors are our own. Manuel dedicates this article to Stephan Klasen, in loving memory.

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Santos Silva, M., Klasen, S. Gender inequality as a barrier to economic growth: a review of the theoretical literature. Rev Econ Household 19 , 581–614 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11150-020-09535-6

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An Introduction to Equality of Opportunity

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Freedom and equality are foundational values that we draw upon when envisioning a better society. Equality of opportunity is a social ideal that combines concern with freedom and equality, and this social ideal provides a vision of how we ought to live together.

At first glance, the value of equality can seem to demand uniformity that seems dystopian. For instance, if everyone were forced to wear the same clothes, pursue the same hobbies and have the same number of children, we would think this was intolerable. However, we should be careful not to reject equality entirely on this basis. Equality is still attractive if we limit its scope to some areas. For instance, equality before the law and equal rights to vote seem to be at the heart of our convictions about how we should live together. Inequality in these areas seems as intolerable as sameness in dress, family size or in our choice of recreational activities.

Freedom or opportunity may explain where and when equality seems most important. Our equal rights to a fair trial, to vote in elections, to association, speech and religion are each an equal right to a sphere of freedom. Part of what we value in this mixture is the protection from interference and having others dictate our lives to us and the other part of what we value is that we enjoy this protection on equal terms. In the sphere of religious worship, for example, individuals decide what religion they will worship. Unequal freedom, where some have freedom of religion and others do not, strikes us as wrong because it is unequal. Whereas Equal Unfreedom, where we are all slaves or lack basic rights, strikes us as wrong because it is unfree. A combination of freedom and equality, then, promises to describe a fitting social ideal for people who disagree about important, religious, moral and political questions, and yet want to live together in mutual respect.

Equality of Opportunity is one such combination and it has been a rich source of academic and political debate, a political slogan, and a widely held conviction about how human beings should live together. At its most basic, Equality of Opportunity requires that all human beings are equal in the sphere of opportunity. Equality of opportunity is usually opposed to slavery, hierarchy and caste society, where social positions, life prospects and individual freedoms are determined by membership of some group that you are born into, such as the aristocracy. Our acknowledgement of the importance of freedom and equality motivate the theory and practice of Equality of Opportunity. But before we go any further we should ask, “What is Equality of Opportunity?”

What is Equality of Opportunity?

When we ask what equality of opportunity is we could be asking two questions. First, we could be asking about the concept of equality of opportunity. If so, we are asking for the idea in its most general form. We are asking what kind of features must a statement have to count as a statement of equality of opportunity rather than a statement of something else. Second, we could be asking for the correct conception of equality of opportunity. The term 'conception' refers to a specific interpretation of a notion or idea. It is a particular way of understanding the kind of equality and the kinds of opportunities that are most valuable or more important. While there is only one concept of equality of opportunity, there are many different conceptions.

The concept of Equality of Opportunity has been examined by philosopher Peter Westen. Westen shows that an opportunity is a three-way relationship between a person, some obstacles, and a desired goal. However, a person only has an opportunity if she has a chance of achieving that goal. One cannot have an opportunity if one faces insurmountable obstacles that make it impossible to secure the goal. For instance, one cannot have an opportunity to become the president of the United States if one is not a natural born citizen. Many people, therefore, have no opportunity to become president of the United States. A person can have an opportunity even in the face of many, quite serious, obstacles. So, a natural born US citizen has the opportunity to become president, but she faces serious obstacles, such as accruing the relevant number and distribution of votes, as well as winning primaries. So, to have an opportunity means to face no insurmountable obstacles with respect to some important or desired goal, but what about having an equal opportunity?

In order for opportunities to be equal within a group, each member of that group must face the same relevant obstacles, none insurmountable, with respect to achieving the same desirable goal. In our example, all natural born citizens of the US have an equal opportunity when irrelevant goals, such as race, gender and religious affiliation are removed and when relevant obstacles, such as being democratically elected, remain.

Some critics have doubted the importance of mentioning equality when thinking about opportunities within a group. They argue that the only equality here is universalism, meaning that the opportunity is had by all. We can see why one might be drawn to the idea that equality plays little role in this ideal since we could say that everyone should have an opportunity to become president and this seems to do the job as well as saying that everyone should have an equal opportunity to become president. Equality appears to be doing no work, and this may lead us to question whether this expresses the value of equality.

However, this analysis misses something of significance, which is the fact that all people should have the same opportunity, and not merely an opportunity. While everyone could have an opportunity, and each face different irrelevant and relevant obstacles, equality of opportunity requires that no one face any irrelevant obstacles. If women were prohibited from becoming president, or if they had to win a greater proportion of the votes to be elected than men, then they would face an irrelevant obstacle that men do not. Thus, men and women would not enjoy equal opportunity with respect to the good of political representation in this society. This aspect of equality of opportunity is important for a social ideal because it expresses part of the moral value of equality.

At this point we do well to contrast equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. Equality of opportunity requires only that people be free from certain obstacles to pursue their own happiness and success. As such, Equality of Opportunity is not opposed to different outcomes of the conscientious, but fair pursuit of jobs, health, wealth, education and other goods that people value, so long as everyone faces the same obstacles. Sometimes this idea is known as the level-playing field because its main concern is that no one is unfairly advantaged before they even start out. It is in stark opposition to games that are rigged in favor of some over others. By contrast, Equality of Outcome insists that everyone do equally well with respect to some of the goods that individuals value, regardless of their effort, talents, and whether they wish to pursue it. This sort of equality can seem undesirable, but it can also be understood as one that is impossible to achieve because people are unequal in so many of the respects that affect outcomes, such as natural talent, health, their attitudes to hard work and in their interests and preferences. This can lead us to favor equal opportunities and to allow the inequality of outcomes. However, we should note that equal outcomes may still be very important indicators of inequality of opportunity, and that equal outcomes may be appropriate for children and others who lack responsible agency.

The bare concept of Equality of Opportunity as a relation between agents, obstacles and goals, leaves a lot to be filled out. There are many different ways in which we could all face the same obstacles with respect to the same goals. By varying the different goals and obstacles we vary the conception of Equality of Opportunity and different views will offer different guidance, and some will be more attractive than others. Different goals can make a difference in the following way. Opportunity for undesirable or irrelevant goals, such as opportunities to be mugged or to count grass, will not be included. Some goals may be trivial and it may not matter whether people have different opportunities with respect to those goals. For instance, opportunities to tie your shoe laces or grow a tree in your garden are less important than opportunities to find meaningful work or get a good education. We will have to think hard about exactly which ones do matter and which do not. In addition, we must think carefully about the kinds of obstacles that are morally relevant and the ones that are morally irrelevant with respect to the goal. For instance, we might think that race, religion and sexuality should not affect one’s opportunities to go to college, but that hard-work and ability to learn should. As such, ability to learn would be an obstacle that is relevant to the distribution of opportunity to go to college, but sexuality, religion and race would not. Which obstacles are morally relevant will depend on a more substantive account of what matters morally in each case. Different accounts of what are relevant and what goals matter are offered by rival conceptions of equality of opportunity.

Conceptions of Equality of Opportunity can be more or less demanding. The obstacles may be more or less difficult to overcome or the goals may be more or less difficult to achieve. For instance, if we think that obstacles such as social class, in addition to race, gender, sexuality and religious belief, are irrelevant to the goal that is desired, then we will have to try much harder to minimize differences in social class or minimize the effect social class has on the distribution of these goods. We could also specify the nature of the obstacle in different ways, such as formal or legal racial discrimination rather than explicit or implicit bias. The view can also be more or less demanding in terms of the goals we specify. So, for instance, we might think that everyone should have an equal opportunity to reach a basic standard of living or that everyone should have an equal opportunity to reach a high or equal standard of living. These views would support different policies and may require much more of our institutions, and greater individual effort, than others. They may also reflect the values of individual freedom and equal respect better or worse.

We will now briefly focus on two influential conceptions of Equality of Opportunity and show how they differ in their demandingness. We then go on to explain the special relationship that conceptions of Equality of Opportunity have with education and schooling.

Different Views of Equality of Opportunity

Formal Equality of Opportunity is arguably the least demanding conception of Equality of Opportunity. It focuses on the formal rules that stand in the way of achieving particular goals, such as employment and admission to schools.  Different types of formal equality of opportunity can focus on many or few goals. What unites these views is a focus on formal discriminatory rules as an irrelevant obstacle to some role. Policies that are related to this conception include requirements that advertisements for jobs do not specify racial, religious or gender characteristics. They must be perfectly general such that anyone can apply without violating the formal rule. This vision of a free and equal society can be satisfied merely by ensuring that formal rules are properly general. So long as there are no formal rules that stand in the way of some individuals’ achievement of some goal those individuals have equal opportunity. The view is therefore compatible with private discrimination, implicit bias, and unequal distributions of resources.

On the other hand, Equality of Opportunity for Welfare is perhaps the most demanding conception of Equality of Opportunity. It focuses on welfare, or how well a person’s life actually goes, and not minimal welfare but equal welfare. Individual choice is the only relevant obstacle. So, the only thing that should stand in the way of an individual’s achievement of equal welfare should be their own voluntary choices. In other words, a person should be no worse off than others through no fault or choice of their own. If a person chooses to take risks or gambles, any resulting inequality would not be problematic, but if a person is a victim of bad luck, such as a natural disaster or disability, then any resulting inequality would need to be remedied for equality of opportunity to be fully realized.

This view is highly demanding and would require a radical redistribution of wealth to both those who are less naturally talented and to those who are otherwise disadvantaged through no fault of their own, for example, through upbringing, through natural bad luck as well as social class, racism, sexism and religious discrimination. Addressing these inequalities may require investing in schooling, sports facilities and social networks as well as healthcare and assistance for the disabled and heavily regulated jobs markets.

It should be noted that the more demanding the view the greater the encroachment on some putatively valuable forms of individual freedom. For instance, in order to ensure that wealth, social background and natural luck do not act as an obstacle for the poor it may be necessary to tax the earnings of the well-off. Some will claim that this violates the entitlements of the rich to their resources, and is therefore too high a price to pay. This may lead those people to accept a less demanding conception of Equality of Opportunity. Others will claim that taxing the wealthy is an acceptable price to pay to ensure that poor people have substantively equal opportunities to secure good jobs, adequate healthcare and education and to have means to support their families and live a decent life.

There are other conceptions of Equality of Opportunity that are only moderately demanding. The two extreme views above, however, help us to see and make sense of dominant ideologies on the left and the right, and therefore historical public political disagreements. We can characterize much of contemporary political argument as being about what the best conception of Equality of Opportunity is, which partly explains why it is such an important idea to understand.

Defenders of small government and individual responsibility on the right may be drawn to something resembling the conception of Formal Equality of Opportunity because going further requires interference with individual entitlements and a bigger state. They may go further than Formal Equality of Opportunity and instead favor the Meritocratic Conception of Equality of Opportunity, which requires redistribution to ensure that hard work and talent, and not discrimination and favoritism, determine hiring practices.  Those who believe in meritocracy may consider some taxation to be a price worth paying for fairer hiring practices.

Defenders of more substantive equal chances, who care about equalizing school quality and school funding, as well as providing for health care, will be drawn to more demanding ideals that more closely approximate Equality of Opportunity for Welfare. They may be put off by the demandingness of the conception of Equality of Opportunity for Welfare, and instead favor the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity, which condemns inequalities in social background as obstacles to achieving valuable goals in life. Such a view will require redistribution to ensure that hard-working and talented individuals from the working class have the same chance of success as similarly hard-working and talented individuals from the middle and upper-classes. This kind of view may advocate increased per pupil funding for the working-class. Evaluating the appropriateness of these ideals will be determined both by how well they express our commitment to freedom and equality, and whether they lead to sacrifice of other values that we view as more or less important than that commitment.

These different conceptions of Equality of Opportunity offer us very different guidance and assessment of our societies. The contemporary USA undoubtedly satisfies some conceptions more than others. In this way, we can see that which view is the best conception of Equality of Opportunity will determine how much work we have to do to make progress and in which direction we need to go, whether that is breaking down formal barriers, eradicating nepotism and informal discrimination, or something more demanding like mitigating wealth inequality and the inequalities that follow from social class distinctions and natural disadvantages.

Applying the Ideas to Education

The focus of this project is on the application of conceptions of Equality of Opportunity to education. Though the types of policies and reforms that will be favored depend on the conception of Equality of Opportunity that is most defensible, we can say that educational institutions will have a central role to play in better realizing equality of opportunity. This is because education is valuable for a wide range of goals that we think are important, such as employment, health, wealth, welfare and citizenship. Moreover, almost all contemporary societies compel school attendance for all young children and so education can be offered to all and across many of the irrelevant obstacles, such as race, sexuality, religious affiliation, social class and natural talent. Of course, it may be that the highest gains could be had by focusing on pre-K education, or that non-educational levers would be most effective if politically feasible, but, to some extent, we have to think about what is best given the current institutional arrangements. As such, educational institutions are one lever that we can use to try to redress imbalances and inequalities and to help members of disadvantaged groups overcome those obstacles. Education, and schooling in particular, may be a much more politically feasible lever than pure redistribution or cash transfers and other more controversial public policies such as minimum wage legislation, affirmative action and further intervention in markets. Focusing on reform of educational policy, therefore, may be the best thing to focus on today. Nevertheless, reforming society through education can be an extremely difficult undertaking and background inequality and poverty can restrict even its efficacy. We should bear in mind, however, that some conceptions of equality of opportunity may be particularly inappropriate when applied to children. For instance, Equality of Opportunity for Welfare focuses on individual choices, because it emphasizes responsibility, but we don’t usually hold children responsible for the choices they make because their capacities are so under-developed. Also, Meritocratic Equality of Opportunity may seem to be ill-suited to educational institutions because educational institutions are supposed to cultivate merit. In applying conceptions of Equality of Opportunity to education, we must show an awareness of these and other concerns.

To illustrate more clearly some of the benefits and concerns of using education as a lever for achieving equality of opportunity, I want to explore one particular conception of equality of opportunity. Let’s assume that we accept the conception of Fair Equality of Opportunity as determining an important part of how we should live together and hold that social class should not affect who gets jobs, but that the most meritorious candidate should get the job. Failure to address this issue would be a failure to take into account that social class should not affect job prospects.

There are broadly two types of strategy we could adopt, each of which has its own pitfalls and each of which uses educational institutions. The first strategy is to focus resources on trying to correct inequalities by providing extra schooling to those who are disadvantaged by social class. This aims to address the inequality of opportunity that is caused by institutions other than educational ones. The second strategy is to focus on attempting to correct inequalities in the social background, which may include inequality in educational opportunity and access to good schools, as well as unemployment and poverty in general.

We know that family background can greatly affect the development of capabilities and skills, and ambitions to go to college and get high-status jobs. Knowing this, and being committed to fair equality of opportunity, we could attempt to redress the issues around unequal childhoods by offering extra schooling to children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. This could either be achieved by targeting additional resources, tutoring, and extra classes at those who are poorer within the school, or it could be achieved by providing greater resources to those schools that educate a greater proportion of poorer children.

However, operating at this level treats the symptoms rather than the cause and, in the society that allows private schooling and tolerates huge wealth inequalities, additional investment in the education of poorer children can become an arms race that the government cannot win. Put simply, the better-off could always invest more and more into the education of their children and will do so because they want their children to secure places at the elite colleges and in the top professions. If rich parents invest more and more in their children’s education, the government must attempt to keep up if it is going to succeed in equalizing opportunity. As the government spends more and more to narrow the gap, education budgets, and taxation must increase, but it is very difficult to sustain ever-increasing budgets and taxation consistent with winning democratic elections. This threatens the political feasibility of such measures, though significant improvements may be made in the process.

An alternative strategy, which treats the causes of social class as an obstacle to equality of opportunity, is available. Looking to education we may wish to ensure that all schools are equally well-resourced. As we saw above, one way of doing this is to devote increasing resources to poorer schools. An alternative is to limit the resources that can be spent on private education, or to abolish elite private schooling all together, as it threatens equality of opportunity. However, such measures will likely be insufficient, even if feasible and effective. This is because parent-child interactions as innocent as reading bedtime stories can enhance child development unequally. Interfering in the family is both politically difficult to justify and may be morally suspect as it compromises the values that the family embodies and promotes.

A radical alternative is available, but it requires the eradication of social class and anything other than minimal wealth inequalities. In such a society, no one would be so much better off than others that they have more free time, resources, better housing and health care so that their children develop to a greater extent or more quickly than others. This would be to address the causes of inequality of opportunity, but it would likely be highly unpopular with the electorate and some will argue that an economy where workers are paid roughly equally for different work, will be painfully inefficient. Whether this is true cannot be proved here, but each of these strategies may be rejected on the grounds of being ineffective, infeasible or of compromising more important values, such as the value of the family or economic efficiency. Nevertheless, the first strategy appears to be the most promising and our commitment to equality of opportunity of some sort suggests that where we fall short of respecting freedom and equality in our society today, the educational institutions will be our first and most promising levers.

In addition, we need to think about the goal that we are trying to achieve within education, not only the goal that we care about for Equality of Opportunity in general, i.e. the conception that we think is correct. Disagreement about this concerns whether we should be concerned with equality of educational outcomes, equality of opportunities, or merely adequacy, and is partly motivated by the problems with meritocracy and responsibility noted above.

Different standards of education might be appropriate for different types of equality of opportunity goals. For instance, with respect to jobs, we might be very concerned that equally hard-working and naturally talented students achieve equal outcomes on standardized tests, since being the most qualified candidate usually gets you the job. However, being a good citizen perhaps is independent of how well informed you are relative to others, so long as you are well-informed about various candidates and about how to spot a bad argument. Moreover, with respect to young children, we might think that outcomes, not opportunities are best in some areas, such as basic reading skills. What we want, with respect to literacy, is not that children have equal opportunities to read, but that they actually learn to read, even if this comes at great cost. We should note that achieving equal outcomes will be differently costly for different individuals due to ranges of ability and the quickness with which children pick up certain skills. At the most extreme end of this spectrum are severe cognitive disabilities, which may render it very difficult or impossible to achieve equal outcomes. As such, a desirable view of equality of opportunity may have to answer special sorts of questions around the appropriate education for those who have severe disabilities. Whatever the correct answers, we can only make progress on these questions by thinking seriously about the issues many of which are presented here in a way that is widely accessible.

Our focus is on the application of conceptions of Equality of Opportunity to education, but there are many other goods that people value and should have equal opportunity to pursue. For instance, most people value healthcare as it is important no matter what their ambitions and life plans are. Access to good doctors and basic medical treatment could be evaluated in terms of equality of opportunity. So, if some people face greater obstacles than others in getting to see a good doctor. If basic healthcare is expensive, then poorer people will face greater obstacles than the rich. If few doctors are willing to work in rural areas, then those in rural areas will face greater obstacles than those in urban areas. These unequal obstacles may be condemnable, depending on the conception of Equality of Opportunity that is most desirable. Moreover, rather than focusing on particular goods, such as education and health, we may prefer to focus on happiness itself, since it seems to be the fundamental value that people care about. Such a focus would enable us to condemn obstacles that stand in the way of health or education only insofar as those goods affect the happiness of those individuals. This makes an important difference if people wish to pursue health or education to different extents. One person’s happiness may hinge on her access to education far more than another’s persons. We can say the same about health.

The intention of this brief introduction to equality of opportunity and education was to introduce beginners to the ideal of equality of opportunity, its place within contemporary political debates and its history. At this stage we might ask: why should anyone care about equality of opportunity? This takes us back to the start of the introduction. If you believe that all of us are equal in some important ways and if you think that freedom to pursue one’s plans without interference from others is important, then equality of opportunity is very important indeed.

Arguing about equality of opportunity is really an argument about how best to understand the kind of society we should be striving for, one where free and equal persons live together. Although other ideals may also be worth striving for, equality of opportunity offers important guidance and a standpoint for criticism of contemporary societies, their politicians and our own personal conduct. It enables us to judge some change as progress or backsliding. Educational institutions, in particular, are well situated to make those changes and failure to utilize them for this end can be judged to have been a further opportunity missed.

What can be found on this website is a summary of different academic debates about equality of opportunity and education and an annotated bibliography of some of the key books and articles on the topic. I start with a beginners reading list below, and go on to explain the crux of some key debates. The debates are divided into the following sections. The first section addresses the concept of equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. The second section considers different conceptions of equality of opportunity and debates about their relative merits. The third section covers debates about education and educational policy, including: school choice and the family, higher education, and whether adequacy or equality should be the principle for distributing educational resources and the aim of schooling.

Arneson, Richard. “Equality Of Opportunity”. Edited by Edward N Zalta. Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, 2002. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/equal-opportunity/ . Google Scholar

Brighouse, Harry, and Kenneth Howe. Educational Equality. Continuum, 2010. Google Scholar

Gutmann, Amy. Democratic Education. Princeton University Press, 1998. Google Scholar

Jencks, Christopher. “Whom Must We Treat Equally For Educational Opportunity To Be Equal?”. Ethics, Ethics, 1988, 518-533. Google Scholar

Kittay, Eva Feder. “At The Margins Of Moral Personhood”. Ethics, Ethics, 116, no. 1 (2005): 100-131. Google Scholar

Kymlicka, Will. In Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2002. Google Scholar

McKinnon, Catriona. Issues In Political Theory. Oxford University Press, 2012. Google Scholar

Parfit, Derek. “Equality And Priority”. Ratio, Ratio, 10, no. 3 (1997): 202-221. Google Scholar

Swift, Adam. Political Philosophy: A Beginners' Guide For Students And Politicians. Polity, 2013. Google Scholar

Williams, Bernard. “The Idea Of Equality”. In Philosophy, Politics, And Society, 110-131. Philosophy, Politics, And Society. London: Basil Blackwell, 1962. Google Scholar

Section 1: Equality of Opportunity and Alternatives »

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In simple terms, economic equality is about a level playing field where everyone has the same access to the same wealth. Some people think that this already exists in Canada (we’ve all heard the saying “If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything”). But that’s simply not true. Poor people aren’t poor because they want to be. And not all wealthy people got what they have through hard work.

Lots of women’s groups, including YWCA Canada, believe there should be economic equality between men and women. As long as there isn’t, women’s equality will not be fully achieved.

  • Women are over-represented among the poorest people seniors, women leading lone-parent families, women with disabilities, and Aboriginal women experience the worst of it.
  • Single mothers have a median net worth of about $17,000, while single dads have about $80,000 (net worth is the total value of possessions such as a car, furniture, real estate, savings, stocks, RRSP s, etc.). *
  • In 2008, women working full-time for the full year earned 71% of what men earned, on average (university-educated women only earned 68% of what their male counterparts did that year). *
  • Unemployment continues to be a serious problem for women, with Aboriginal women and women with disabilities twice as likely to be unemployed as other women. *
  • Seven out of ten part-time workers and 66% of minimum wage earners are women. * *
  • The wage gap between women and men has been stuck at 7072% since the 1970s, and is often wider for women who are older, Aboriginal, or of colour. *

Individual versus systemic

Sometimes, an idea or attitude is so dominant in a society, it’s practically unconscious. When enough people see something as “just the way it is,” a number of societal systems are impacted. Think of it as a vicious cycle: widespread attitudes about something lead to inequitable systems which, in turn, serve to reinforce the attitudes that created them.

Womens economic inequality stems from several key factors.

First of all, women shoulder most of societys unpaid work (housework, childcare, meal preparation, eldercare, etc.), leaving less time for paid employment. This comes from a lack of institutional support (government, agencies) and often, a lack of individual (partner, family) support.

The work women do for no pay is consistently undervalued by society. This undervaluing has become a systemic problem that negatively impacts women in far-reaching ways.

Too many women are forced to take part-time, seasonal, contract, or temporary jobs at low pay, long hours, no security, with few (if any) opportunities for advancement, and no health benefits or pension. The issues are compounded for migrant women, women of colour, or women without immigration status.

Most poor women in Canada are working, but cant earn enough to lift themselves out of poverty.

Lately, there has been a lot of talk in the news about the market and the economy. When governments make decisions about how to tax us and how to spend our tax dollars, they are usually guided by the state of the economy. Because women earn less than men (on average), we are under-represented in terms of whats called market income. That means we dont reap as many benefits when governments implement tax breaks, and we are more negatively affected when governments cut spending to various programs.

Womens economic inequality will only worsen until problems like these are addressed:

  • pay discrimination (the 2004 federal Pay Equity Task Force made some great recommendations which government has yet to enact)
  • low wages and/or long hours (many people believe the minimum wage should be standardized across Canada — it currently varies between provinces/territories — and that it should be increased to the point where all full-time workers can live above the poverty line)
  • lack of affordable access to services like child care and elder care
  • too few women-friendly policies in the workplace, pregnancy sensitivity

More unionization would also help the situation — did you know that women in unions earn an average of eight dollars more per hour? Governments need to make it easier for people to join unions, especially women.

(Labour unionization is when co-workers organize into a group to speak as a united body to their employer about various aspects of their work — wages, hours, benefits, workplace health and safety, equality, and other work-related issues.)

Government policies must take women into account better. YWCA Canada has called for the federal government to make better investments in the kinds of policies that will support womens economic security.

Drawing on the experiences she had with her mother, Sophia Gran-Ruaz decided that care packages would be a great way to show women and children in shelters, who are often overlooked and judged, that their communities care for them. She founded Snug as a Bug, Kids Helping Kids when she was just 11 to compile and distribute care packages containing everything from toiletries to school supplies to toys, solicited from businesses and individual donors. In its first year, “Snug” created 500 care packages for two Toronto shelters; the next year, 1,000 packages for three. In January 2010, a whopping 3,300 packages were delivered to thirteen shelters across the Greater Toronto Area. All told, “Snug” has positively impacted thousands of women and children. Shortly after winning the Top Teen Philanthropist Award in 2010, Sophia appeared on a cover spread in Vervegirl Magazine that generated emails from hundreds of young women across Canada who were inspired to Think Big/Start Small . She also received a YWCA Young Woman of Distinction Award in 2011

Have you or your family ever struggled to make ends meet? Had a hard time paying for tuition fees? Experienced employment that was unstable or low-paying? Have you struggled to care for your family due to a lack of benefits or pension? Whether or not you share your personal story with others, contemplating your own experiences with this issue is an important step toward becoming more engaged with the effort to ensure economic equality.

Get involved. There are many groups working to create economic equality in Canada. Check out who’s doing what in your community to raise the minimum wage, advocate for pay equity, push for affordable child care, and to support women in poverty. They need you.

Pass it on. Discuss the matter of economic equality in your classes, at the family dinner table, at your extra-curricular activities, at your workplace, even at your place of worship. The more people who know about and understand the problem, the more likely they are to contribute to solutions.

Volunteer. While we address “big” issues like economic equality, there are a thousand “small” ways to make a difference close to home. Think about contributing some time to a local food bank, homeless shelter, or maybe an after-school program for students in low-income neighbourhoods. Not only is it rewarding to support community in this way, it gives you a valuable up-close look at inequality in real-life terms.

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Do you feel the need to examine some previously written College Essays on Economic Equality before you get down to writing an own piece? In this open-access collection of Economic Equality College Essay examples, you are granted a fascinating opportunity to examine meaningful topics, content structuring techniques, text flow, formatting styles, and other academically acclaimed writing practices. Adopting them while crafting your own Economic Equality College Essay will definitely allow you to complete the piece faster.

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Capitalism {type) To Use As A Writing Model

Capitalism has been the backbone of the success of the American economy and had helped the country dominate the global economy. But, it has created great wealth inequality in America and other countries that have followed the path of Adam Smith. The current economic situation of America makes it clear that to achieve wealth equality, it is important to apply other economic principles such communism professed by Karl Marx.

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Thriving Through Humble Beginnings - Jimmy Cheadi’s Rise as a Market Vendor

May 17, 2024.

economic equality essay

The hustling and bustling Honiara Municipal Market in the Solomon Islands.

Jimmy Cheadi, a father of eight children from Areatakiki in Guadalcanal Province, discovered the power of “start small, think big” during a Small Business Enterprises training program. As he reflected on his journey and how he started, he smiled as he vividly shared his life story that began way back in 2008.The idea of “start small, think big” struck him when he learned to utilize resources at home to generate income. Looking around, he noticed cassava stems lying on the ground — an opportunity waiting to be seized.

With determination, Jimmy began planting cassava on his land, working ten mounds per day for six days a week. He meticulously recorded his progress, knowing it would take about seven months for the cassava to mature. One Sunday, he harvested three mounds and took them to town. To his surprise, a lady offered him $100 for the bag. This motivated him to continue, and soon he was earning $600 weekly from selling cassava.

In 2009, Jimmy took a leap and approached Heritage Park Hotel in Honiara to supply cassava. The hotel’s GM agreed to a three-day supply, not only of cassava but also fruits and vegetables. Jimmy acted as a broker, sourcing additional items from other farmers. Despite challenges, he earned a good profit. Over four years, the hotel reduced supply days to one but maintained the partnership. Jimmy registered his business as Sailima Enterprises, meaning “Hands Together” in his dialect. This allowed direct payments into a bank account, improving financial management.

Through his business, Jimmy earned $7,000 to $10,000 per day in sales, supporting his children’s school fees. Balancing family responsibilities and hotel demands wasn’t easy. Sometimes, he had to choose between church gatherings and business trips to town. Fluctuating vegetable prices posed challenges, but Jimmy’s determination prevailed.

economic equality essay

Jimmy Cheadi's journey serves as a poignant reminder that success emerges from humble origins, fueled by a can-do spirit and a thirst for knowledge.

economic equality essay

Jimmy Cheadi with his produce at the Honiara Municipal Market.

He achieved many milestones, ranging from purchasing vehicles, expanding into transport services, and building an eight-bedroom house. Yet, Jimmy faced a conflict that continues to bother him, as he likes to help others in need. He mentioned, "The money-minded financial literacy training emphasized savings, but my inclination to help others led me to spend money, which was meant for the future. And participating in the ANZ Money-Minded training provided tools for better financial management. I have learnt from this training to keep records, plan investments, and save toward specific goals and I can also put aside cash to help others in need.”

Jimmy’s story signifies the importance of thriving through roots—starting small, thinking big, and making a difference. His story reminds us that success often begins with humble beginnings, a can -do attitude, and willingness to learn and adapt, that will contribute to bigger changes and transformation in business. 

The story of Jimmy resonates with the focus of the Markets for Change Project, and that is, to promote gender equality by economically empowering women and men market vendors in Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Samoa. This project, which brings together various stakeholders, offers financial literacy training that connects vendors and farmers with essential service providers. This sharing of information, raising awareness, and networking opportunities have the potential to improve the livelihoods of market vendors and their families. 

The Markets for Change Project continues to contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the M4C project directly contributes to multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It supports SDG 5 on Gender Equality, SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth, SDG 10 on reducing inequalities, and SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities. The project ensures equality and economic empowerment for all, including men, women, youth, people with disabilities, and marginalized minority groups.  

The M4C project is implemented by UN Women in partnership with UNDP and with support from the Government of Australia. Together, they are making a real difference in the lives of women and men like Jimmy, whose resilience and commitment, contributes to the sustainable economic growth in rural communities across Honiara, Solomon Islands. 

For more information, please contact:  

Jilgina Kimisi, Project Associate, M4C Project on [email protected] and Vilisi Veibataki, Markets for Change Project Manager, UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji | [email protected] | +679 3227701

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  • Affiliation: School of Education
  • K-12 educational outcomes are a powerful reflection of social opportunity, both by meaningfully predicting adult wellbeing across measures like health and income, and by encapsulating the breadth of factors that contribute to a child’s preparedness, ability, and opportunity to learn and persist in school. In this light, the persistent deficits in educational outcomes experienced by individuals from traditionally disadvantaged identity groups and classes reflect systemic failures to meaningfully address the numerous shortcomings of education and social policy to create equal educational opportunities for all students. The three papers that comprise this dissertation aim to promote more equitable education and social policy by contributing valuable insights into three vital areas of policy that substantively shape the educational opportunities and outcomes of students in the United States. In the first, I extend the existing literature on how air pollutants can contribute to educational inequality by measuring the association between students’ proximity to hog farms, their feces lagoons, and fecal fertilizer spraying, and educational outcomes in North Carolina. In the second, I examine the most important school–level resource for student achievement –– teachers –– and how the processes by which students are assigned to classrooms enables the disproportionate assignment of lower performing, nonwhite, and low-income students to less effective teachers within their schools. And finally, I examine districts’ proposed spending of federal COVID–19 relief funds, what differences in spending strategies existed for these extremely flexible dollars, and what potential equity implications may exist for student academic learning recovery in the wake of the pandemic. Collectively, these papers contribute new knowledge in three important areas of education and social policy and foreground several promising future research directions by which greater educational equity and equality of social opportunity can be promoted.
  • economics of education
  • Education policy
  • Education finance
  • Public policy
  • education policy
  • https://doi.org/10.17615/c3d5-1b73
  • Dissertation
  • In Copyright - Educational Use Permitted
  • Domina, Thurston
  • Springer, Matthew G.
  • Sartain, Lauren
  • Lindsay, Constance A.
  • Doctor of Philosophy
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School

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  1. Economic Equality Essay Example

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  2. Reflection Paper Gender Equality Essay Paper / Economic Benefits Of

    economic equality essay

  3. Equality Essay assignment

    economic equality essay

  4. The Global Problem of Gender Equality Free Essay Example

    economic equality essay

  5. 15 Equity vs Equality Examples (2024)

    economic equality essay


    economic equality essay


  1. Achieve Economic Equality Empower Yourself with Financial Independence

  2. 15. Thomas Robert Malthus

  3. Gender Equality Essay in english || Gender Equality || #viral #shorts #suhana

  4. Gender Equality

  5. Essay On Gender Equality With Easy Language In English

  6. The Economic Possibilities For My Grandchildren


  1. Is Economic Inequality Really a Problem?

    Enough economic inequality can transform a democracy into a plutocracy, a society ruled by the rich. Large inequalities of inherited wealth can be particularly damaging, creating, in effect, an ...

  2. America Needs a New Economic Model

    Achieving true equality of opportunity is a generational challenge, but the direction should be towards universal early years education, school funding based on need rather than local wealth, and ...

  3. 6 facts about economic inequality in the U.S.

    From 2007 to 2016, the median net worth of the top 20% increased 13%, to $1.2 million. For the top 5%, it increased by 4%, to $4.8 million. In contrast, the median net worth of families in lower tiers of wealth decreased by at least 20%. Families in the second-lowest fifth experienced a 39% loss (from $32,100 in 2007 to $19,500 in 2016).

  4. 5 Essays to Learn More About Equality

    How is gender equality measured? This essay refers to the Global Gender Gap report's factors. This report is released each year by the World Economic Forum. The four factors are political empowerment, health and survival, economic participation and opportunity, and education. The author provides a brief explanation of each factor.

  5. The economic gains from equity

    The economic gains from equity. The paper summarized here is part of the Fall 2021 edition of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (BPEA), the leading conference series and journal in ...

  6. Economic Inequality

    Distribution of income across richer and poorer groups (before tax) WID, area. Income inequality: Gini coefficient before and after tax World Bank (via UN SDG) Income share of the richest 1% (before tax) WID. Income share of the richest 10% (before tax) WID. Threshold income or consumption for each decile World Bank.

  7. 247 Equality Topics to Write about + Equality Essay Examples

    In your equality essay, you might want to focus on racial, social, or gender inequality in historical perspective or nowadays. Whether you will choose to write an argumentative or persuasive essay, this article will help you. We've gathered top race and gender equality title ideas and added excellent equality essay examples to inspire you ...

  8. PDF Inequality Matters

    on racial equality in the last 60 years—in education, health, legal rights, and housing access—much of that advancement stalled in the 1970s and 1980s, leaving us far from racial equality in any particular domain that influences life chances. Economic inequality in the United States, meanwhile, has been growing steadily

  9. Equality

    The orthodox Marxist view of economic equality was expounded in the Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). Marx here rejects the idea of legal equality, on three grounds. ... "The Practice of Equality," in C. Fourie, F. Schuppert, and I. Wallimann-Helmer (eds.), Social Equality: Essays on What it Means to be Equals, Oxford: Oxford University ...

  10. Equity (economics)

    Equity, or economic equality, is the concept or idea of fairness in economics, particularly in regard to taxation or welfare economics.Equity is a central concept in economics, closely tied to notions of fairness and justice in the distribution of wealth, resources, and taxation within a society.

  11. Economics, Equality, and Responsibility: A Review Essay

    This Essay is brought to you for free and open access by NDLScholarship. It has been accepted for inclusion in Notre Dame Law Review by an authorized administrator of NDLScholarship. For more information, please [email protected]. Recommended Citation Michael L. Corrado,Economics, Equality, and Responsibility: A Review Essay, 74Notre Dame L ...

  12. PDF Home

    Home | Projects at Harvard

  13. Social Equality and Economic Growth

    Economic growth is closely related to social equality. It refers to a rise in market value for goods and services produced in a particular economy within a given period. In most cases, the growth is expressed as a percentage of the annual change in gross domestic product. To achieve this phenomenon, the economy must be productive.

  14. PDF The Meaning of Economic Equality

    To say that two things are equal means, of course, nothing. To say that they are of equal length, breadth, thickness, cubic. contents, or weight means something. Similarly, to say that. men are equal means nothing until it is specified in what re- spects they are equal. Even economic equality does not ac-. quire a real meaning until we agree ...

  15. (PDF) Economic inequality, an introduction

    Then the linkages between terms inequality, poverty, and economic growth. In this essay the policies that has influence on the equality is considering. The concept of inequality is commonly known ...

  16. Economic Inequality: What It Is and How It Impacts You

    Economic inequality is a broad term that encapsulates the gap between the income and wealth amassed by different groups in a society. Americans reference it when questioning why CEOs earn so much ...

  17. Gender inequality as a barrier to economic growth: a review of the

    The vast majority of theories reviewed argue that gender inequality is a barrier to economic development, particularly over the long run. The focus on long-run supply-side models reflects a recent effort by growth theorists to incorporate two stylized facts of economic development in the last two centuries: (i) a strong positive association between gender equality and income per capita (Fig. 1 ...

  18. An Introduction to Equality of Opportunity

    Freedom and equality are foundational values that we draw upon when envisioning a better society. Equality of opportunity is a social ideal that combines concern with freedom and equality, and this social ideal provides a vision of how we ought to live together. At first glance, the value of equality can seem to demand uniformity that seems ...

  19. Economic Equality Essay Examples

    Economic Equality Essays. What Is the Libertarian Critique of Rawls? The government can use different strategies for its administration and ensuring economic equality, and among them is the preference of Libertarianism. Such a system makes it possible for the government to make minimal intervention in financial matters, thus allowing for a free ...

  20. Economic Equality

    Womens economic inequality stems from several key factors. First of all, women shoulder most of societys unpaid work (housework, childcare, meal preparation, eldercare, etc.), leaving less time for paid employment. This comes from a lack of institutional support (government, agencies) and often, a lack of individual (partner, family) support.

  21. Economic Equality

    994 Words. 4 Pages. Open Document. Economic Inequality. The growing economic inequality in the United States is an ongoing issue and over the years has changed. According to past studies done by the US Census Bureau changes in earnings distributions have had a huge effect on this inequality. Just take a look at some of the people in the fields ...

  22. Economic Equality College Essays Samples For Students

    In this open-access collection of Economic Equality College Essay examples, you are granted a fascinating opportunity to examine meaningful topics, content structuring techniques, text flow, formatting styles, and other academically acclaimed writing practices. Adopting them while crafting your own Economic Equality College Essay will ...

  23. Short Essay on Economic Equality

    According to Laski, economic equality is largely a problem of proportion. It means that the things without which life is meaningless must be accessible to all without distinction in degree or kind. All men must eat and drink or obtain shelter. Equality involves, up to the margin of sufficiency, identity of response for primary needs.

  24. Thriving Through Humble Beginnings

    It supports SDG 5 on Gender Equality, SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth, SDG 10 on reducing inequalities, and SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities. The project ensures equality and economic empowerment for all, including men, women, youth, people with disabilities, and marginalized minority groups.

  25. Gender Inequality in the WAEMU: Current Situation and Opportunities

    This paper documents the current state of gender inequalities in the WAEMU by focusing on outcomes (health, education, labor market and financial inclusion) and opportunities (economic rights). The findings show that despite significant progress toward gender equality over the last three decades, there are still prevalent gender-based disparities, which prevent women from fulfilling their ...

  26. Dissertation or Thesis

    Collectively, these papers contribute new knowledge in three important areas of education and social policy and foreground several promising future research directions by which greater educational equity and equality of social opportunity can be promoted. Date of publication. 2024; Keyword. economics of education; Education policy; Education ...