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IB DP Economics Study Notes

2.12.3 Policies for Equity

In the ongoing quest to achieve a balanced and fair society, it's vital to consider the role of various policies aimed at ensuring equity. Three predominant tools utilised by governments worldwide include the minimum wage, social welfare programmes, and progressive taxation.

An image illustrating equality and equity

Image courtesy of naceweb

Minimum Wage

The concept of a minimum wage is rooted in ensuring that workers are compensated fairly for their efforts, even in sectors where bargaining power may be skewed.


  • Ensuring a Basic Standard: It guarantees that workers, regardless of their profession or the sector they work in, are able to maintain a basic standard of living from their earnings.


  • Protection for Low-income Workers: Workers, particularly in jobs with low bargaining power or in sectors with an abundance of labour supply, can be assured of a baseline income.
  • Stimulates Consumption: When low-income workers have more disposable income, they tend to spend more, which can boost the local economy.
  • Reduces Dependency on Welfare: With a decent income, fewer individuals may need to rely on social welfare programmes, thereby potentially saving state resources.


  • Job Cuts: Firms, especially small businesses or those operating on thin margins, may find it challenging to afford a higher wage bill, leading to potential job cuts or reduced hiring.
  • Inflationary Pressures: As businesses grapple with increased operational costs due to wage hikes, there might be a trickle-down effect, causing a rise in product or service prices.
  • Informal Sector Growth: Some employers might circumvent the law by hiring workers informally, leading to reduced rights and protections for those workers.

Social Welfare Programmes

These are the mechanisms through which governments support individuals in need, ensuring a minimum standard of life and reducing the adverse effects of economic downturns or personal misfortunes.

Types of Programmes:

  • Unemployment Benefits: Offered to those out of work and actively seeking employment. These act as a temporary relief until the individual finds another job.
  • Child Benefits: Assistance to families, often provided as tax reductions or direct financial aid, to support child-rearing expenses.
  • Disability Allowance: Catered for those unable to engage in regular employment due to debilitating conditions.
  • Pensions: A mandatory saving mechanism ensuring individuals have a post-retirement income.


  • Protection Against Poverty: By offering a safety net, these programmes can prevent individuals and families from slipping into poverty during challenging times.
  • Economic Stimulus: During recessions, welfare programmes can act as an automatic stabiliser, injecting money into the economy and preventing further decline.


  • Dependency Concerns: Prolonged reliance on welfare can sometimes disincentivise individuals from actively seeking employment or improving their circumstances.
  • Administrative Costs: The cost of maintaining and monitoring these systems can be considerable, often requiring sizeable bureaucracies.

Progressive Taxation

A progressive tax system aims to balance the scales by taxing individuals based on their ability to pay.


  • Tax Brackets: Different income levels are taxed at varying rates. As one's income rises, so does the applicable tax rate, ensuring those with more significant means contribute more.
  • Reinvestment: The collected taxes are typically funnelled back into the economy through public services, infrastructure development, and other state-funded initiatives.


  • Economic Redistribution: By taxing the wealthy at a higher rate, it allows for the redistribution of wealth in society, funding projects and services that benefit all.
  • Social Cohesion: Progressive systems can enhance feelings of fairness within a society, reducing the potential for class conflict.


  • Disincentivising High Earners: There's a potential risk that excessively high tax rates might deter entrepreneurial spirit or disincentivise high earners from maximising their potential.
  • Complex Tax Systems: Progressive systems can sometimes become convoluted, leading to inefficiencies or creating loopholes that can be exploited.
An image illustrating equality, equity and justice

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When assessing these equity policies, one recognises the delicate balance governments must strike. While each tool has its merits in promoting fairness, their success often hinges on the broader socio-economic context and the intricacies of their implementation.


Both progressive taxation and social welfare programmes are tools designed to mitigate income inequality. Progressive taxation ensures that the affluent contribute a more significant portion of their income towards public funds. This redistribution of wealth can then finance social welfare programmes, which aim to elevate the standard of living for the less affluent. Welfare programmes can provide financial aid, job training, and other supportive services, ensuring that even low-income individuals have access to basic necessities and opportunities. Thus, by using funds from progressive taxes to finance welfare schemes, governments can bridge the gap between different income groups, fostering greater economic equity.

Social welfare programmes, while integral for supporting vulnerable populations, have economic criticisms. One argument is the potential for welfare traps, where individuals might be disincentivised from seeking employment as the financial benefits from work might not significantly surpass welfare payments. Additionally, critics highlight the strain on public finances, as these programmes require substantial government funding, potentially leading to higher taxes or increased public debt. There's also concern about dependency culture, where prolonged reliance on welfare might deter individuals from self-sufficiency. Lastly, some argue that welfare programmes can distort labour markets, disincentivising jobs in lower-wage sectors.

Progressive taxation and flat tax systems are distinct in their tax structures. In a progressive system, the rate of tax increases as the taxable amount rises, meaning those with higher incomes pay a larger percentage of their income in tax. This approach aims to distribute the tax burden equitably, ensuring those with higher incomes contribute a proportionally greater share. On the other hand, a flat tax system levies a consistent tax rate on all income levels. Every taxpayer, irrespective of income, pays the same percentage. Critics argue that a flat tax can disproportionately burden lower-income earners, as they spend a more significant portion of their income on necessities.

The concept of a minimum wage and a living wage often overlap but serve distinct purposes. While both aim to ensure workers have a decent standard of living, the minimum wage is a legally mandated base salary set by governments, whereas the living wage is an indicative figure, reflecting the amount needed to cover basic expenses like housing, food, and transport in a particular area. If the minimum wage were set at a significantly higher level, it could potentially lead to adverse economic outcomes, such as increased unemployment due to businesses being unable to afford higher wages, or inflation, as costs are passed onto consumers. Thus, policymakers must strike a balance, considering both economic implications and workers' welfare.

Yes, there are alternative approaches to promoting equity. One such method is the provision of public goods and services, like education and healthcare, to ensure everyone has equal access regardless of their income. Investment in education, especially, can level the playing field, providing individuals from all backgrounds with the opportunity to enhance their skills and improve their economic status. Another approach is the promotion of worker cooperatives or employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), ensuring that employees have a stake in their companies, benefiting from its successes. Furthermore, governments can enact regulations ensuring fair employment practices, combating discrimination, and ensuring workplace rights, which can indirectly promote equity.

Practice Questions

Evaluate the potential advantages and disadvantages of implementing a minimum wage as a policy for equity.

The implementation of a minimum wage is primarily aimed at guaranteeing workers a basic standard of living, especially in sectors with limited bargaining power. Its key advantage lies in providing protection for low-income workers by ensuring they have a baseline income. Furthermore, a rise in disposable income for these workers can stimulate consumption and reduce dependency on welfare programmes. However, potential disadvantages include the risk of job cuts, particularly for small businesses operating on narrow margins. There's also the possibility of inflationary pressures, as firms might raise product prices to cope with the increased wage bill. Additionally, businesses may resort to hiring informally, bypassing the wage requirements and depriving workers of rights and protection.

Discuss how progressive taxation can promote economic equity while addressing some potential criticisms of the system.

Progressive taxation is designed to promote economic equity by taxing individuals based on their ability to pay. By having various tax brackets, with higher income levels taxed at elevated rates, it ensures those with greater means contribute a more significant proportion. This collected tax can then be reinvested into the economy, financing public services and infrastructure that benefit everyone. Thus, it not only redistributes wealth but also fosters social cohesion by creating a perceived sense of fairness. However, criticisms include the potential to disincentivise high earners if the tax rates are perceived as excessively high. There’s also the risk of the system becoming complex, leading to inefficiencies or exploitable loopholes.

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Written by: Dave
Cambridge University - BA Hons Economics

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