Whether it be through rising stock and house prices; the unequal burden of climate change; or the discussion about a global minimum corporate tax rate, economic inequality is in the spotlight everywhere these days. So, it was opportune that three LSE centres and departments teamed up to host the latest meeting of the Society for the Study of Economic Inequality (ECINEQ) last month.
The Department of Social Policy, the International Inequalities Institute, and STICERD joined forces to organize the ninth meeting of the Society – the premier international economic association dedicated primarily to the study of inequality in all its manifestations – during 8-10 July. Initially planned as an in-person event, the conference successfully pivoted to virtual, with three keynote addresses, 252 papers presented and over 300 participants online. Despite the inevitable apprehension about organizing a large online event, engagement levels were high, with one senior US academic calling it “…a wonderful conference. It was a great program, and the technology worked flawlessly for me.”
The high-profile keynotes included a lecture by Professor Sir Richard Blundell (UCL) that drew on his work for the Deaton Review to shed light on the nature and causes of poor wage progression for lower educated workers in the UK, and how it interacts with the country’s changing tax-benefit system. Professor Florencia Torche, a Stanford sociologist, used novel administrative data from the state of California to shed light on the puzzling decline in the number of low-birth weight babies during the pandemic – uncovering diverging patterns between the population average and birth outcomes for disadvantaged women from ethnic minorities. In his Presidential Address, LSE’s own Professor Stephen Jenkins provided a sobering assessment of the prevalence of measurement error in the data we use to measure inequality: at the bottom, top and middle of the distribution. He emphasized the importance of combining different data sources to improve our understanding of what is really happening across the distribution. Professor Jenkins takes over as President of the Society from France’s Thomas Piketty.
Beyond the three keynote addresses, the variety of topics and approaches addressed in the 250 plus papers presented in parallel sessions was a striking reminder of how ubiquitous inequality is in our analysis of economic outcomes and processes. The range of topics discussed is too broad to do justice to here, but it included multiple sessions on economic mobility; on gender and racial gaps; on inequality of opportunity; on health and educational disparities; on the rise of top incomes; on preferences for redistribution and, of course, of how the Covid pandemic has added to the mix. Taken together, the Covid papers told a nuanced story: despite the severity of the economic shock unleashed by the pandemic, social protection systems were able to protect the income of the poorest in a number of countries – and failed spectacularly to do so in many others…
“Although it took a lot of work from a good number of people, hosting ECINEQ 2021 at LSE was definitely worth it!” say organizers Frank Cowell (Economics, STICERD and III); Francisco Ferreira (III and Social Policy) and Stephen Jenkins (Social Policy and III).