Economic inequality and its evolution, whether measured by changes in the distributions of wealth or income over time, has long been an important topic in both research and social policy analysis. Inequality of household income or wealth may be a reflection of economic and social institutions or other structures, as well as of differences across households in human capital, preferences, financial literacy, other demographics, or luck. Large or growing inequality or reduced economic mobility within or across generations may have implications for the incentives that shape economic behavior and overall efficiency and even social stability. Distribution almost surely also affects the way that macroeconomic shocks or policy changes are propagated through the economy.
The available evidence indicates that wealth is highly concentrated at the top of the wealth distribution. Although total household income is typically seen as more equally distributed than wealth, the distribution is still highly skewed to the top. For research turning on reliable measurement of aggregates, the extreme skewness of these distributions poses a particularly serious obstacle, since wealthy households are often very difficult to observe in surveys and their own economic management may be biased toward developing some basis to minimize their income and wealth as reported in official sources. For research at the other end of the economic spectrum, especially research on poverty, survey measurements are affected by the difficulty of gaining cooperation or consistently locating this population, some of which is relatively transient; administrative information may be fragmented or nonexistent for this population in some cases. Thus, access to suitable data to support research on income or wealth is an ongoing challenge. Aggregated or micro data sourced from surveys, administrative data, or other big data sources each have strengths and weaknesses that need to be considered in evaluating the results of any study. Comparing results across multiple studies can be further complicated by inconsistencies in definitions of core concepts. Differences in units of observation (families vs. households), as well inconsistent treatment of various components of income (for example, realized versus unrealized capital gains), or wealth (for example, pensions and other annuitized resources) will impact results.
To promote research on these issues, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and the Conference on Research in Income and Wealth (CRIW), with the support of the Stone Center for Socio-Economic Inequality at the CUNY Graduate Center, the Stone Project for Wealth and Income Inequality at Brown University, and Opportunity Insights, will convene a research conference to bring together researchers from government, academia, business and non-profit organizations. The conference will be organized by Raj Chetty (Harvard University, NBER, and Opportunity Insights), John N. Friedman (Brown University, NBER, and Opportunity Insights), Janet Gornick (Stone Center for Socio-Economic Inequality, CUNY), Barry Johnson (Statistics of Income, IRS), and Arthur Kennickell (Stone Center for Socio-Economic Inequality, CUNY). The conference will be part of the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the NBER. The goal of improving the measurement of economic activity, in particular the distribution of income, played an important part in the organization’s founding.
Research papers on all aspects of the distribution of income and wealth, and the mobility within these distributions, are welcome. Topics that will be emphasized include, but are not limited to:
* Definition and measurement of income and wealth. What are the relevant definitions of income and wealth, and what are key measurement issues, particularly with regard to measuring the tails of the distributions?
* Measures of inequality and other distributional characterizations, including cross-generational measures of inequality
* Accounting for structural and behavioral mechanisms affecting the distributions of income and wealth. What is the role of intergenerational transmission of wealth and earning capacity? What are the life cycle changes in income and wealth, and how do life cycle models compare with other economic models of household wealth accumulation and income generation? What are the effects of financial literacy on wealth accumulation?
* The role of institutional and social structures in affecting the wealth and income distribution. What are the effects of tax and transfer programs on income distributions? What are the links between income and asset poverty, including the role of debt accumulation?
* Implications of the structure of income and wealth. What are the macroeconomic implications of the microstructure of income and wealth? Are there broader implications for social stability?
To submit a paper for potential presentation at the conference, please upload a one-page abstract by April 30, 2019 at:
Each abstract should clearly explain the question that will be studied, the plan of analysis, and the data that will be used. Additional supporting material, including empirical exhibits and/or a draft paper, is also welcome. Decisions about the papers that will be included on the program will be made by June 30, 2019. The organizers welcome submissions of both empirical and theoretical research, and by scholars who are early in their careers, who are not NBER or CRIW affiliates, and who are from groups that are under-represented in the economics profession.
The conference will be held in Washington, DC on March 5-6, 2020. Papers that are selected for the conference program will be published in an NBER/CRIW volume, subject to review by editors and referees from the NBER and University of Chicago Press. Final versions of papers will be due April 1, 2020.
Economy class travel and hotel expenses will be covered for two authors per paper and for discussants and panelists. Additional co-authors and other interested researchers are welcome to attend as space permits. Questions about this conference may be addressed to