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IB DP Economics Study Notes

2.12.2 Wealth Inequality

Wealth inequality is a pressing and multifaceted issue that stands at the forefront of many socio-economic discussions today. Rooted in an array of historical, economic, and institutional factors, the unequal distribution of assets within a society can have far-reaching impacts.

A graph illustrating income inequality between while and black families in the US

Image courtesy of stlouisfed


1. Historical Factors

  • Inheritance: Generations of families accumulate and inherit wealth, creating significant disparities between them and those starting from scratch.
    • Compound Growth: Once a family starts accumulating wealth, compound interest can result in exponential growth over generations, widening the wealth gap.
  • Colonial History: The remnants of colonisation can still be seen in various parts of the world.
    • Land Grabs: Colonisers often took over large swathes of land, concentrating wealth among a selected few, a structure that persists today.
    • Exploitation: The economic exploitation of colonies and their resources led to wealth accumulation in coloniser nations, contributing to global disparities.

2. Economic Factors

  • Return on Capital vs. Growth Rate: The dynamics between capital returns and economic growth rates can either amplify or mitigate wealth disparities.
    • Investment Returns: Wealthy individuals, with a diversified investment portfolio, can often achieve returns that outstrip average wage growth, consolidating their financial dominance.
  • Financial Market Access: Economic inclusivity is vital for wealth generation.
    • Credit Limitations: When lower-income groups face challenges accessing credit, their ability to invest in assets or businesses diminishes, hindering wealth accumulation.
    • Savings and Investments: The affluent have better financial knowledge and tools, allowing them to maximise returns on savings and investments.

3. Institutional Factors

  • Taxation Systems: The nature of a nation's tax system can greatly affect wealth distribution.
    • Capital Gains Taxes: Often, capital gains are taxed at lower rates than income, favouring those with significant investments.
  • Regulatory Frameworks: Market structures and regulations play a pivotal role.
    • Monopolies and Market Power: In markets where monopolies or oligopolies prevail, wealth can become concentrated among a select few corporations or individuals.
  • Corporate Influence: The role of corporations in politics and policy-making can have direct implications for wealth distribution.
    • Lobbying: Corporations can influence policies in their favour, potentially leading to regulations that enhance their market power and profitability.

4. Social and Cultural Factors

  • Education: The quality and accessibility of education can dictate future earning potential.
    • Educational Disparities: Unequal access to quality education means unequal access to high-paying jobs and wealth accumulation avenues.
  • Networks and Connections: Wealth often provides access to exclusive circles.
    • Opportunity Access: Affluent families can provide their offspring with opportunities through connections, furthering the wealth gap.
A graph illustrating world’s wealth distribution in 2015

Image courtesy of weeklycuttingedge


1. Economic Impact

  • Reduced Growth: Wealth inequality can stymie broad-based economic growth.
    • Consumption Dynamics: With a vast majority having limited wealth, overall consumption – a significant driver of growth – might be curtailed.
  • Inefficient Resource Allocation: Extreme wealth concentration can lead to resources not being utilised where they're most needed, resulting in inefficiencies.

2. Social Impact

  • Decreased Social Mobility: A stratified society can become rigid over time.
    • Entrenched Inequality: When the wealthy have disproportionate access to resources like quality education, social mobility wanes.
  • Increased Social Unrest: Discontentment can brew in societies where a large portion feels they're not benefitting from the nation's wealth.
    • Protests and Movements: History is replete with examples of societal movements triggered by stark wealth disparities.

3. Political Impact

  • Policy Influence: Concentrated wealth can sway political outcomes.
    • Campaign Financing: Wealthy individuals or entities can influence electoral outcomes by funding preferred candidates or parties.
  • Erosion of Democratic Norms: When the rich have undue influence, the very essence of democratic systems – representing the will of the majority – can be undermined.

Redistribution Policies

1. Taxation

  • Progressive Taxation: An equitable tax system is foundational for wealth redistribution.
    • Wealth Taxes: Some countries have experimented with taxing wealth directly, especially targeting the ultra-rich.

2. Asset Redistribution

  • Land Reforms: Land is a primary asset in many societies.
    • Community Land Trusts: These can ensure land is used for the benefit of the community, preventing excessive concentration.
  • Capital Grants: Direct capital assistance to individuals can bolster their economic standing.

3. Improved Access to Opportunities

  • Public Education: A robust public education system can level the playing field.
    • Vocational Training: Not everyone will attend university, but vocational training can offer lucrative career paths and reduce income and wealth disparities.
  • Financial Literacy Programmes: Understanding money management can empower individuals to better navigate economic systems.

4. Regulatory Reforms

  • Fair Competition Laws: Policies that prevent market domination can promote more equitable wealth distribution.
    • Breaking Up Monopolies: This can democratise industries and reduce the concentration of wealth.

Wealth inequality is a deeply entrenched issue that intersects with various facets of society. By grasping its nuances, we can better understand the world today and strive for a more equitable tomorrow.


Wealth inequality can heavily influence political power and governance. Wealthy individuals or groups can use their resources to back political candidates, lobby for policies in their favour, or even shape public opinion through media ownership. Such influence can lead to policy decisions that perpetuate or even exacerbate wealth disparities, such as tax breaks for the wealthy or deregulation that primarily benefits large corporations. This can undermine democratic principles, as the interests of a small elite might be prioritised over the broader populace's needs, leading to policies that might not necessarily be in the best interest of the majority.

Globalisation and technological advancements can widen wealth inequality through a myriad of channels. Firstly, while globalisation opens up markets, it can also lead to job losses in certain sectors or regions, particularly for low-skilled labour. This polarises income levels and, by extension, wealth. Technological advancements, particularly automation, can disproportionately benefit capital owners at the expense of workers, since machinery and software can replace human tasks. Additionally, tech-driven economies often exhibit 'winner-takes-all' dynamics, where a few firms or individuals amass substantial wealth, leaving others behind. Moreover, access to cutting-edge technology and global markets often requires capital, which is primarily held by the affluent, further perpetuating the wealth divide.

In limited contexts, some argue that wealth inequality can spur economic growth, especially in the short term. The idea is that the wealthy, having excess capital, can invest in businesses, research, and development, driving innovation and economic expansion. Their ability to take on more significant financial risks can lead to breakthroughs that might benefit society at large. Moreover, the promise of accumulating wealth might act as an incentive for entrepreneurs and innovators. However, it's essential to note that prolonged and extreme wealth inequality can stifle growth, as reduced consumer spending power, social unrest, or underinvestment in public goods can counteract these potential benefits.

Education, particularly quality education, plays a pivotal role in wealth inequality. Those with higher educational qualifications generally have better job prospects, earn more, and consequently accumulate more wealth. Moreover, access to top-tier education is often costly, making it primarily available to the affluent. This creates a feedback loop: wealthy families can afford high-quality education for their children, ensuring they maintain or even elevate their socio-economic status. On the other hand, those from less privileged backgrounds often have limited access to such resources, impeding their chances of climbing the wealth ladder and perpetuating intergenerational wealth disparities.

Wealth inequality is typically more accentuated than income inequality because wealth accumulates over time and can be passed down across generations. While income represents the flow of money earned, primarily through work and investments in a given year, wealth encompasses assets owned minus debts. Therefore, even if two people earn the same income, the one who has been earning longer or has received an inheritance will likely have more wealth. Over time, the effects of compound interest, property appreciation, and other wealth-growing mechanisms can dramatically expand the wealth gap, even if income disparities remain unchanged or narrow.

Practice Questions

Discuss the key economic factors that contribute to wealth inequality in a given society.

Economic factors play a significant role in perpetuating wealth inequality. One primary determinant is the difference between the return on capital and the overall growth rate. When the return on investments consistently surpasses the average wage growth, those with significant capital witness an expansion of their wealth, furthering the divide. Additionally, limited access to financial markets for lower-income groups restricts their ability to invest, thus hindering wealth accumulation. For instance, challenges in accessing credit can prevent these groups from making pivotal economic investments. Moreover, the affluent, having superior financial literacy and resources, can maximise their investment returns, thus widening the wealth chasm.

Evaluate the social implications of wealth inequality in modern societies.

Wealth inequality brings about profound social repercussions in contemporary societies. A salient impact is the diminishment of social mobility. With a disproportionate share of resources, particularly quality education, being accessible primarily to the affluent, climbing the socio-economic ladder becomes arduous for many. Such stratification can solidify over generations, entrenching disparities. Furthermore, pronounced wealth inequality can breed social unrest, as large sections of the populace may feel disenfranchised. This discontent often manifests in protests or societal movements, asserting the need for a more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities. Hence, wealth inequality doesn't just influence economics, but significantly moulds societal structures and dynamics.

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Written by: Dave
Cambridge University - BA Hons Economics

Dave is a Cambridge Economics graduate with over 8 years of tutoring expertise in Economics & Business Studies. He crafts resources for A-Level, IB, & GCSE and excels at enhancing students' understanding & confidence in these subjects.

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