Student views on inequality

Each class in ECON 156 does a short survey to assess their views on the desirable properties of an inequality measure, as discussed in Chapter 5 of EOP. The survey is done before the course reaches the topic of inequality measurement. Doing a survey like this is a good way to understand the principles of inequality measurement and it helps students identify with some of the arguments later in the course, such as on the effects of economic growth on “inequality” (a classic issue in development economics).

The students are asked to say which of two income distributions for three people has more inequality, if either.  For example the first question is whether inequality is higher for the distribution (2, 4, 6) than (1, 2, 3). Participation is not compulsory, and answers are kept anonymous.

This file summarizes the survey and results for Fall 2015 (and aggregate results for Spring and Fall 2014): Class survey on measuring inequality. (270 out of 320 students responded.)

In all three semesters:

  • Almost all of the class agreed with the anonymity axiom of inequality measurement (that it does not matter who has which income).
  • Virtually all agree with the transfer axiom (redistribution from the poor to the rich, say, is inequality increasing).
  • Scale independence (multiplying all incomes by a constant does not change inequality) was far more contentious: indeed, roughly half the class are absolutists, i.e., they care about the absolute gaps between “rich” and “poor” (sometimes called translation independence) not the ratios of their incomes.

This is broadly consistent with similar surveys in the literature (as noted in EOP, Chapter 5). The fact that half are relativists and half absolutists comes back often in the course, including in understanding the debates on growth and distribution (EOP Chapter 8); see the “GROWTH AND DISTRIBUTION” page under “EXTRAS” on this site.


3 thoughts on “Student views on inequality

  1. Very interesting indeed Martin! Did you collect any more disaggregated data?

    Posted by Chris Hoy | December 22, 2015, 11:18 pm
  2. Chris, no I did not; I was in my teaching mode here. But the difference is salient to many development debates, as I argue in EOP. We need to understand it better. There is surely enough “proof of concept” from this (and other surveys of students, including early work by Amiel and Cowell) to justify including questions like this in a multi-purpose social survey. We might then learn more about why some people are absolutists and others are relativists.

    Thanks for the comment, Martin

    Posted by mravallion | December 23, 2015, 12:12 am
  3. Thank you Martin. I am actually just about to begin my PhD in Economics on this exact topic. So if it is ok I might be in touch with you again about this.

    Posted by povertyanalysis | December 23, 2015, 12:17 am

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