Focusing on wealth inequality also highlights the significance of race and gender divides in distinctive ways. Since private wealth is often owned by families and households, gender relationships and inequities are central to its organization. Racial inequalities in wealth may exceed those in income, which may in part reflect the historical patterns of imperialism and racial capitalism from which racial minorities have been excluded. Demos (US) have recently identified this issue as The Asset Value of Whiteness.
However, although wealth is critical to the analysis of economic inequality, it is more difficult to theorise and measure than income. Wealth assets take numerous forms and can be concealed. Wealth is also highly mobile and cannot so easily be associated with national formations as income inequality. Significant amounts of wealth operate out of tax havens, and flows of corporate capital are central to the operations of financialised capitalism (as the deleterious effects of the 2008 crash revealed very powerfully). Analysing wealth inequality therefore forces us to operate at different scales, ranging from the global down to the urban. It also forces us to recognise the tensions between private and public wealth which lies at the heart of the contemporary politics of inequality since it addresses a range of key issues: Private versus public ownership of capital (including housing); private versus public services; private versus public pensions.
Focusing on wealth also challenges conventional justifications on economic inequality. Whereas analyses of the distribution of income inequality are often pitched as reflections of the significance of skill and human capital for affecting income differences, focusing on wealth opens up bigger concerns about the processes driving wealth accumulation, inheritance and privilege. The build-up of wealth can frequently be seen as ‘unearned income’ linked to the proliferation of rent extraction processes and asset markets, which thus threatens liberal and meritocratic values.
Understanding the significance of wealth has direct implications for the politics of taxation. Although the principle of income tax is well established (though operates with very different degrees of progressiveness in different nations), principles of wealth and inheritance taxes are more controversial and disputed. We are also concerned to promote global financial transparency, off shore wealth, and tax avoidance. Strategies seeking to challenge wealth inequality also require interventions about more positive conceptions of wealth, (e.g. local wealth building strategies, strategies for reaffirming democratic ideals of equal human worth and dignity in the face of growing economic disparities perceived as reflecting the unequal social or moral worth of individuals).