Top incomes and inequality measurement

Working Paper 2018-463


It is sometimes observed and frequently assumed that top incomes in household surveys worldwide are poorly measured and that this problem biases the measurement of income inequality. This paper tests this assumption and compares the performance of reweighting and replacing methods designed to correct inequality measures for top income biases generated by data issues such as unit or item nonresponse. Results for the European Union’s Statistics on Income and Living Conditions survey indicate that survey response probabilities are negatively associated with income and bias the measurement of inequality downward. Correcting for this bias with reweighting, the Gini coefficient for Europe is revised upwards by 3.7 percentage points. Similar results are reached with replacing of top incomes using values from the Pareto distribution when the cut point for the analysis is below the 95th percentile. For higher cut points, results with replacing are inconsistent suggesting that popular parametric distributions do not mimic real data well at the very top of the income distribution.

Authors: Vladimir Hlasny, Paolo Verme.

Keywords: Top incomes, inequality measures, survey nonresponse, Pareto distribution, parametric estimation, EU SILC.
JEL: D31, D63, N35.