The Public Interest

Why the “income distribution” is so misleading

Mark T. Lilla

Fall 1984

AMONG social scientists, the yearly distribution of money income is one of the most frequently used measures of economic and social well-being. Whether expressed graphically (as a bell-shaped curve), in terms of averages (a certain percentage of the population receives less than half of median income), or in percentiles (people in the top X percent receive over Y percent of national income), this distribution is assumed to tell us a great deal about our social and economic reality.

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