The View

The roots of Hong Kong’s income inequality

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 March, 2015, 11:42am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 11:20am

There is a growing public perception in Hong Kong that economic opportunity has worsened for the younger generation - those born after 1980 – as income inequality has risen and intergenerational upward mobility has decreased.

The rising Gini-coefficients of both household and individual income inequality are often cited as evidence of this. The Gini-coefficient for households rose from 0.429 in 1976 to 0.537 in 2011, while that for economically active individuals increased from 0.411 in 1976 to 0.487 in 2011.

The higher income inequality ratio for households is almost entirely the result of their changing demographic composition. Hong Kong has more low-income households today because there are more households composed of single parents, young working adults, and the non-working elderly than in the past.

The expansion of education opportunities has not happened fast enough to meet demand

Household income inequality therefore has risen naturally because of population ageing, divorce patterns, and preferences for not living with parents. Remove these factors and the changes are quite modest.

The picture is simpler for individual income inequality.

One factor cited as evidence of rising inequality is the survey finding that fresh university graduates are not paid much more than HK$10,000 a month. Since a person working 48 hours a week and paid the minimum wage of HK$32.50 an hour can make more than HK$6,760 a month, this would suggest that the investment in schooling and a university education might not substantially improve earnings.

But this conclusion is misleading. Rates of return to schooling for those with secondary education rose from 12.5 per cent in 1981 to 15.8 per cent in 2011. For university degree graduates they rose from 17.0 per cent in 1981 to 22.7 per cent in 2011. The greater increase among those with more education is conclusive evidence that education opportunities have not grown rapidly enough, for otherwise the returns could not have risen by so much.

These rates of return also increased even as average years of education for the working population increased, from 6.1 years in 1981 to 9.2 years in 2011, and more people attained higher education. This is yet more proof that the expansion of education opportunities has not happened fast enough to meet demand.

Evidence of intergenerational upward social mobility in Hong Kong is limited. One way to measure this is to correlate parents’ schooling attainment to their child’s schooling attainment, in both cases based on how they did in comparison with their peers. This removes the confounding effects of rising schooling trends that would bias measured correlations.

A high correlation implies that parent’s schooling attainment strongly determines child’s attainment. Therefore, intergenerational upward mobility is higher when the correlation is lower. The correlation is highest for those born in 1951-56, at around 0.37-0.38. These were the postwar years when many immigrants first came to settle in Hong Kong.

For those born between 1956 and 1991, the correlation is mostly stable, averaging around 0.30 (similar to the correlation of parent-to-child incomes in the United States), except for those born in the period 1961-76 when it dropped to about 0.25-0.26.

This had to do with the waves of emigration from Hong Kong that occurred after the 1967 disturbances and the coming restoration of sovereignty over Hong Kong to China.

As families left, this created more education opportunities for the children of families who stayed behind and substantially improved their upward mobility prospects.

To summarise, household income inequality has worsened relative to individual income inequality due to population ageing, divorce patterns, and preferences for not living with parents. Individual income inequality has worsened because of underinvestment in education.

Many policy advocates have used rising income inequality measures to push for income redistribution. But this merely tries to fix the measures of income inequality. Redistribution will not halt the underlying forces that are driving the income distribution to become more unequal over time. Rising inequality can only be prevented by expanding education opportunities and encouraging couples to stay together.


Richard Wong Yue-chim is Philip Wong Kennedy Wong Professor in Political Economy at the University of Hong Kong