A Tale of Inequality and Upward Mobility: China’s Poor, America’s Poor

What are the facts appropriate to engage in policy conversations on inequality?

The humanity in all of us makes us want to help and improve the lot of those around us who are dealing with difficult circumstances. So we are troubled when we contemplate the state of inequality in the world. We are concerned when we see the gap between rich and poor rising so dramatically in China (in the first panel, first graphic).

China: Inequality and Mobility
China: Inequality and Mobility


But we can’t stop at just that observation about inequality. We need to be clear-eyed about facts, and to reject disinformation, so that policy responses are appropriate. The same picture of China’s inequality also shows, in the second panel, that the bottom half of China’s population has seen its average income quadruple over the same period. China’s inequality has risen, certainly, but so has upward mobility. The rate of average poor people’s income rise in China is higher even than that in the top 10% of the US population (second graphic, first panel).

US: Inequality and Mobility
US: Inequality and Mobility

This US graphic shows that the US, sadly, has seen both its inequality rise and its poor immiserised. The poorer half of the US population is now, on average, as poor as they were in 1989 or 1980. America has done a terrible job taking care of its poor.

I’m curious what readers make of the French experience (in the third graphic), in relation to France’s Yellow Jacket movement? Inequality has fallen; and upward mobility is strong. Yet…

France: Inequality and Mobility
France: Inequality and Mobility

(These graphs are excerpted from my working paper, “Mobility and Political Upheaval in an Age of Inequality”.)

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