How was life in 1820, and how has it improved since then? What are the long-term trends in global well-being? Views on social progress since the Industrial Revolution are largely based on historical national accounting in the tradition of Kuznets and Maddison. But trends in real GDP per capita may not fully reflect changes in other dimensions of well-being such as life expectancy, education, personal security or gender inequality. Looking at these indicators usually reveals a more equal world than the picture given by incomes alone, but has this always been the case? The new report How Was Life? aims to fill this gap. It presents the first systematic evidence on long-term trends in global well-being since 1820 for 25 major countries and 8 regions in the world covering more than 80% of the world’s population. It not only shows the data but also discusses the underlying sources and their limitations, pays attention to country averages and inequality, and pinpoints avenues for further research.
The How Was Life? report is the product of collaboration between the OECD, the OECD Development Centre and the CLIO-INFRA project. It represents the culmination of work by a group of economic historians to systematically chart long-term changes in the dimensions of global well-being and inequality, making use of the most recent research carried out within the discipline. The historical evidence reviewed in the report is organised around 10 different dimensions of well-being that mirror those used by the OECD in its well-being report How’s Life? (www.oecd.org/howslife), and draw on the best sources and expertise currently available for historical perspectives in this field. These dimensions are:per capita GDP, real wages, educational attainment, life expectancy, height, personal security, political institutions, environmental quality, income inequality and gender inequality.
- 02 Oct 2014
Income inequality since 1820
- Michail Moatsos, Joerg Baten, Peter Foldvari, Bas van Leeuwen, Jan Luiten van Zanden
This chapter focuses on income inequality as measured by gross (i.e. pre-tax) household income across individuals within a country. It builds upon a number of large-scale initiatives to chart income inequality trends over time, supplementing them with data on wages and heights for the earlier period. Income inequality trends follow a U-shape in most Western European countries and the Western Offshoots. It declined between the end of the 19th century until about 1970, followed by a rise. In Eastern Europe, communism resulted in strong declines in income inequality, followed by a sharp increase after its disintegration in the 1980s. In other parts of the world (China in particular) income inequality is on the rise recently. The chapter also provides evidence on the global income distribution, i.e. assuming all people belong to the same community. This distribution was unimodal in the 19th century, became increasingly bi-modal between 1910 and 1970 and suddenly reverted back into a unimodal distribution between 1980 and 2000.