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November 22, 2006

Inequality: Not Just Made In The USA

From the Financial Times:

China’s poor grew poorer at a time when the country was growing substantially wealthier, an analysis by World Bank economists has found.

The real income of the poorest 10 per cent of China’s 1.3bn people fell by 2.4 per cent in the two years to 2003, the analysis showed, a period when the economy was growing by nearly 10 per cent a year. Over the same period, the income of China’s richest 10 per cent rose by more than 16 per cent...

China, which had relatively even income distribution in 1980 when it embarked on market reforms, is now “less equal” than the US and Russia, using the Gini co-efficient, a standard measure of income disparities.

The Wall Street Journal has more (on page A4 of today's print edition):

The reason for the income decline at the bottom isn't clear. The World Bank hasn't completed its analysis and its conclusions haven't been published. Even so, the data call into question an economic model that economists have held up as an example for other developing nations.

"This finding is very important. If true, it sheds doubt on the argument that a rising tide lifts all boats," said Bert Hofman, the World Bank's chief economist in China...

Many observers place part of the blame on the way China dismantled its social-welfare system as it phased out state control of the economy -- without building up much to replace it. Health care has become a point of particular concern, as costs shoot up without any widespread system of medical insurance to cover them.

Here is an important piece of information:

The World Bank's Mr. Hofman says the bank's analysis shows the majority of China's poorest 10% appear to be only temporarily poor, thrown down by some setback like sudden illness, the loss of a job or the confiscation of land. That suggests that a basic social safety net, like medical insurance or unemployment benefits, could help move them back out of poverty. Only about 20% to 30% of the poorest appear to be long-term poor, and even they have some savings.

... the survey compares snapshots of the lowest tier of Chinese society at two different points, rather than tracking the same of group of households over time. So, it doesn't necessarily mean that the people who were in the poorest 10% of society in 2001 were all 2.5% worse off in 2003.

Temporary bouts of economic hardship are clearly a much different thing than persistent poverty traps.  And if, in fact, poverty is predominantly transitory, we should perhaps be more circumspect about declaring that a rising tide fails to raise all boats.  Rising inequality -- here and elsewhere -- may be very well be a problem.  But policymakers would be well advised to understand what problem it is, before the surgery begins.