LIS founder explains income disparities

Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs Tim Smeeding, from the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin, discussed global economic conditions Wednesday in Newton.

His lecture, "Comparative International Research on Income and Well Being: Lessons Learned from 25 Years of the Luxembourg Income Study," corresponded with several themes from the political science department classes in that it addressed key findings from the Luxembourg Income Study, a comparative study between nations on the basis of their income levels.

Smeeding, who is also the director of the Institute for Research on Poverty, founded the study in 1983. Its premise was to create a cross-national database of household income figures for purposes of comparative research.

The study includes data from 30 different countries around the world and is currently funded by the national institutes for science and social studies from various participating countries.

Creation of the LIS, according to Smeeding, facilitated the ability to globally compare data and it has become the "gold standard" for international comparisons. Smeeding said it is significant because it shows that across different countries, "the problems people deal with are the same, but the solutions differ."

The most advantageous use of the database would be to "put it in political action models," Smeeding said. These would allow a state to make welfare decisions and overcome parochialism.

Smeeding presented data illustrating the income gaps of the world's wealthiest countries. The nation with the largest gap between the highest and lowest income deciles was Mexico, followed by Russia and the United States. In the U.S., said Smeeding, "a very high fraction of people earn very small amounts of money," compared to our peer industrialized nations.

Smeeding said he feels income inequality is a problem, but "mobility" is more important. "America likes to believe certain things about it itself, that everyone has an equal chance to succeed," he said, "and these things aren't as true as we like to think."