Skip to main content

Dynastic inequality, mobility and equality of opportunity


One often heard counter to the concern about rising income and wealth inequality is that it is wrong to focus on inequality of outcomes in a “snapshot”. Intergenerational mobility and “equality of opportunity”, so the argument goes, is what matters for normative evaluation. In response to this counter, we ask what pattern of intergenerational mobility leads to lower inequality not between individuals but between the dynasties to which they belong? And how does this pattern in turn relate to commonly held views on what constitutes equality of opportunity? We revive and revisit here our earlier contributions which were in the form of working papers (Kanbur and Stiglitz 1982, 1986) in order to engage with the current debate. Focusing on bistochastic transition matrices in order to hold constant the steady state snapshot income distribution, we develop an explicit partial ordering which ranks matrices on the criterion of inequality between infinitely lived dynasties. A general interpretation of our result is that when comparing two transition matrices, if one matrix is “further away” from the identity matrix then it will lead to lower dynastic inequality. More specifically, the result presents a computational procedure to check if one matrix dominates another on dynastic inequality. We can also assess “equality of opportunity”, defined as identical prospects irrespective of starting position. We find that this is not necessarily the mobility pattern which minimizes dynastic inequality.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Aaberge, R., Mogstad, M., Peragine, V.: Measuring long-term inequality of opportunity. J. Public Econ. 95(3), 193–204 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Amiel, Y., Bernasconi, M., Cowell, F., Dardanoni, V.: Do we value mobility? London School of Economics STCERD Discussion Paper, Number PEP 17, (2013)

  3. Arneson, R.: Four conceptions of equal opportunity, (2014)

  4. Atkinson, A.B.: On intergenerational income mobility in Britain. J. Post Keynesian Econ. 3, 194–218 (1981a)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Atkinson, A.B.: The measurement of economic mobility. In: Eigjelshoven, P.J., van Gemerden, L.J. (eds.) Inkomensverdeling en openbare financien Essays in Honour of Jan Pen. Also published in Social Justice and Public Policy (ed. A.B. Atkinson), Wheatsheaf Books Ltd, 1983, pp. 61–75., pp 9–24. Het Spectrum, Utrecht (1981b)

  6. Atkinson, A.B., Bourguignon, F.: The comparison of multi-dimensional distributions of economic status. Rev. Econ. Stud. 49, 183–201 (1982). Also published in Social Justice and Public Policy (ed.A.B. Atkinson), Wheatsheaf Books Ltd, 1983, pp. 37–59.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Atkinson, A.B., Maynard, A.K., Trinder, C.G.: Parents and Children: Incomes in Two Generations. Heinemann Educational Books, London (1983)

    Google Scholar 

  8. Chakravarty, S.R., Dutta, B., Weymark, J.A.: Ethical indices of income mobility. Soc. Choice Welf. 2, 1–21 (1985)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Corak, M.: Income inequality, equality of opportunity and intergenerational mobility. J. Econ. Perspect. 27(3, Summer), 79–102 (2013)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Dardanoni, V.: Measuring social mobility. J. Econ. Theory 61, 372–394 (1993)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dardanoni, V., Fiorini, M., Forcina, A.: Stochastic monotonicity in intergenerational mobility tables. J. Appl. Econom. 27(1), 85–107 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Dasgupta, P., Sen, A.K., Starrett, D.: Notes on the measurement of inequality. J. Econ. Theory 6(2), 180–187 (1973)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Dworkin, R.: What is equality? Part 2: equality of resources. Philos. Public Affairs 10(4), 283–345 (1981)

    Google Scholar 

  14. Fields, G.S., Ok, E.A.: The measurement of income mobility: an introduction to the literature. In: Silber, J. (ed.) Handbook on Income Inequality Measurement, pp 557–596. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Norwell (1999)

  15. Friedman, M.: Capitalism and Freedom. University of Chicago Press (1962)

  16. Goldthorpe, J.H.: Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain. Oxford University Press, London (1980)

    Google Scholar 

  17. Kanbur, R., Mukerji, V.: Probabilistic equity and equality of opportunity in a stochastic framework. Arthaniti XX, 1–9 (1980)

    Google Scholar 

  18. Kanbur, R., Stiglitz, J.E.: Mobility and inequality: a utilitarian analysis. Economic Theory Discussion Paper No. 57, Department of Applied Economics, University of Cambridge (1982)

  19. Kanbur, R., Stiglitz, J.E.: Intergenerational mobility and dynastic inequality. Woodrow Wilson School Discussion Paper in Economics, Number 111, Princeton University (1986)

  20. Kanbur, R., Stromberg, J.O.: Income transitions and income distribution dominance. J. Econ. Theory 45(2), 408–417 (1988)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Kanbur, R., Wagstaff, A.: How useful is inequality of opportunity as a policy construct? In: K. Basu and J. E. Stiglitz (eds.) Chap. 4 in Inequality and Growth: Patterns and Policy, Volume I: Concepts and Analysis. Palgrave Macmillan (2016)

  22. Markandya, A.: The welfare measurement of changes in economic mobility. Economica 51, 457–71 (1984)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Piketty, T.: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press (2014)

  24. Roemer, J.E.: Equality of Opportunity. Harvard University Press (1998)

  25. Roemer, J.E.: Equal opportunity and intergenerational mobility: going beyond intergenerational income transition matrices. In: Corak, M. (ed.) Chap. 3 in Generational Income Mobility in North America and Europe. Cambridge University Press (2004)

  26. Shorrocks, A.F.: The measurement of mobility. Econometrica 46(5), 1013–1024 (1978)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Stiglitz, J.E.: The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. W.W. Norton and Company (2013)

  28. Stokey, N.: Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves: the economics of social mobility. In: Schwartz, N. L., Jacobs, D., Kalai, E. (eds.) Frontiers of Research in Economic Theory: the Nancy L. Schwartz Memorial Lectures 1983–1997, pp 210–241. Econometric Society Monographs, Cambridge (1998)

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ravi Kanbur.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Kanbur, R., Stiglitz, J.E. Dynastic inequality, mobility and equality of opportunity. J Econ Inequal 14, 419–434 (2016).

Download citation


  • Dynastic inequality
  • Mobility
  • Equality of opportunity