Published in Journal of Economic Growth
Average incomes of the poorest fifth of society rise proportionately with average incomes. This is a consequence of the strong empirical regularity that the share of income accruing to the bottom quintile does not vary systematically with average income. In this paper we document this empirical regularity in a large sample of 92 countries spanning the past four decades, and show that it holds across regions, time periods, income levels, and growth rates. We next ask whether the factors that explain cross-country differences in growth rates of average incomes have differential effects on the poorest fifth of society. We find that several determinants of growth -- such as good rule of law, openness to international trade, and developed financial markets -- have little systematic effect on the share of income that accrues to the bottom quintile. Consequently these factors benefit the poorest fifth of society as much as everyone else. There is some weak evidence that stabilization from high inflation as well as reductions in the overall size of government not only raise growth but also increase the income share of the poorest fifth in society. Finally we examine several factors commonly thought to disproportionately benefit the poorest in society, but find little evidence of their effects. The absence of robust findings emphasizes that we know relatively little empirically about the broad forces that account for the cross-country and intertemporal variation in the share of income accruing to the poorest fifth of society.