Social Indicators Research

, Volume 130, Issue 3, pp 1051–1072 | Cite as

The Rising Tide of Absolute Global Income Inequality During 1850–2010: Is It Driven by Inequality Within or Between Countries?

  • Thomas Goda
  • Alejandro Torres García


This paper is the first to decompose absolute global income inequality into its within-country and between-country component. The results show a continuous increase of absolute global inequality during 1850–2010, which can be separated into three distinct phases: (1) between 1850 and 1929, within-country inequality explained up to 76 % of absolute global inequality, yet the growth rates of within- and between-country inequality were very similar; (2) a sharp increase in the importance of between-country inequality occurred during the 1929–1950 period, which was followed by a period during which the within- and between-country components were approximately equally relevant; and (3) after 1985, the growth in absolute global inequality was driven primarily by the accelerated growth of within-country income differences. Currently, within-country inequality explains 70 % of absolute global market inequality, a figure close to that of the year 1850. Additional findings include that absolute income convergence between countries took place after 2005, that it is possible to reduce absolute inequality and to grow simultaneously, and that recently within-country net inequality has grown faster than market inequality. The main findings are preserved when different absolute decomposable inequality measures, sample sizes, and purchasing power parity exchange rates are used.


Absolute inequality Personal income distribution Global inequality Within-country inequality Between-country inequality 

JEL Classification

D31 D63 O15 



We thank Ange´lica Sanchez, Juliana Arias, and Natalia Gaviria for their outstanding research assistance. Furthermore, we are grateful to Bas van Leeuwen (and his co-authors) for providing us with an updated version of their historical Gini coefficient data based on their paper The Changing Shape of Global Inequality 18502000. We would also like to thank an anonymous referee, Maria Fernanda Quintero, Gustavo Canavire, Thedore Breton, and the participants of the 18th annual conference of the Research Network Macroeconomics and Macroeconomic Policies (FMM) for their helpful comments, which helped us to improve this paper substantially. We gratefully acknowledge financial support from Colombia’s Administrative Department of Science, Technology and Innovation (Colciencias), which partly financed the research assistance of Angélica Sanchez (Jovenes Investigadores program).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Economics and FinanceUniversidad EAFITMedellínColombia

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