PerspectiveEconomics

Foundations of Societal Inequality

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Science  30 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5953, pp. 678-679
DOI: 10.1126/science.1181939

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Summary

Economic and social outcomes, including incomes, poverty, life expectancy, and infant mortality, differ widely between societies. Such inequalities within countries also vary to a great degree. Despite the importance and ubiquity of these differences, their sources are poorly understood and hotly debated. Although we know how the broad patterns of inequality between countries have evolved over the past two centuries (1, 2), most of what we know about within-country inequality comes from contemporary data. On page 682 in this issue, Borgerhoff Mulder et al. (3) show that wealth inequality in 21 historical and contemporary “small-scale societies” is determined by the intergenerational transmission of different types of assets. What makes the findings important for social science is the link between inequality and institutions that regulate the inheritability of assets.