Rising Economic Inequalities

The concept of relative inequality of life chances has dominated sociological research in times of educational and welfare state expansion, rising living standards due to constantly high economic growth rates and institutionalized class conflicts. As noted in the introduction, those days are gone. A new constellation has emerged in advanced capitalist countries, marked by low growth rates and increasing economic inequality. The increase of economic inequalities has become a major topic in recent academic and public debates. The picture of rising economic inequalities in the OECD world is robust, based on large-scale and high quality datasets on income that have become available to the scientific community. The OECD has contributed greatly to this attention with its series of reports on economic inequalities. Moreover, the GINI Project has gathered comparable income data for 30 countries over 30 years in order to assess developments of economic inequalities on a larger comparative scale (Nolan et al. 2013). Overall, inequality did increase over time, but there is some heterogeneity in the extent and timing of the increase, as well as different developments at different parts of the distribution. In some countries inequality did not increase substantially, but rather fluctuated around stable levels. This was the case in the continental welfare states of France, Austria and Belgium, but also in Italy, Ireland, Slovenia and Japan. In most of the other countries inequality did increase, although to varying degrees and sometimes as a result of different developments in different periods. For instance, in the UK inequality rose after Thatcher but then flattened out. In other liberal countries, but strikingly also in the Nordic countries and the Netherlands, inequality has increased strongly and almost monotonically over the last 30 years. In most of the Mediterranean countries inequality did not increase before recent times due to the economic recession. Even more complex patterns can be observed for the post-socialist countries, with some of them experiencing particularly sharp increases of inequality, while others remaining at the rather low levels of inequality apparent in the late 1980s.

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