Start main page content

The Wealth Inequality Project

The Wealth Inequality research stream at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) is leading multidisciplinary research on Wealth Inequality and Elites, with a strong network of researchers across the global South.

The research agenda broadly follows four processes as themes:

  • Measurement
  • Key features of wealth (e.g. inheritance)
  • Political economy

In the global South, high inequality has been persistent, and in many cases deepening. This is despite many countries adopting both progressive constitutions and policies.

Wealth inequality is more extreme than income inequality, yet most inequality is viewed through the lens of the labour market, and so the focus has been on inequality of income and opportunities.

Ownership of assets, the common definition of wealth, can provide a range of benefits, from security to means of production. Thus, extreme polarisation of asset ownership is an important part of understanding overall inequality. As wealth, built up over time, can be inherited and passed on across generations. it captures inherited privileges and confers continued advantages to future generations. These privileges and advantages are political in nature (e.g. racial and gender discrimination, colonial policies) and are gained from social status of being in elite groups, a group that has disproportionate control over a country’s resources.

Wealth concentration and elite status thus interrelated. Distributions of wealth therefore both reflect and reinforce how power is held in society. It is therefore imperative, in understanding inequality, to link together elite studies and wealth distributional work.

In short:

  • Wealth as an asset: a store of value representing a benefit or series of benefits accruing to the economic owner
  • Ownership entails rights to flows from assets, i.e. right to exclude others
  • It is intergenerational – you can pass on wealth over time. Wealth inequality in one time period becomes worse in the next period, as it is an endogenous process (the rich get richer just by having assets)
  • Current wealth inequality captures historical and global legacies of injustice and inequality
    i.e. wealth is the best indicator of how inequality is sedimented into society today.
  • Not much is known about wealth – most known about income inequality.
    •   yet, the extremes of income inequality are due to wealth. i.e. capital  incomes at the top, debt   at the bottom
  • Wealth accumulation entails both national and global economic processes that lead to inequality