WASHINGTON – The International Monetary Fund warned Thursday that wide income inequality can slow economic growth and is proposing ways to reduce it.
Its recommendations include: Raising property taxes. Taxing the rich more than others. Raising the eligibility age for government retirement programs.
Such proposals have typically encountered stiff opposition from policymakers. IMF officials say it is up to individual countries to decide whether and how to try to reduce income disparities. But if they do, its report released Thursday highlights ways it says governments can use tax and spending policies to reduce inequality without inhibiting growth.
The proposals are the latest sign of the IMF’s growing concern about income inequality. It’s an unusual focus for a global lending organization best-known for providing loans paired with strict budget cuts.
Thursday’s report puts the weight of the IMF behind the notion that large wealth gaps can depress growth, a move welcomed by advocacy groups for emerging economies.
Similarly, a survey by the Associated Press late last year found that a majority of economists think income inequality in the United States is weakening its economy. Middle-income consumers are more likely to spend extra income than wealthier households are. As a result, stagnant middle-class income can depress consumer spending and overall growth.
Inequality has worsened in most countries in the past three decades, the report said. In the United States, the share of income that’s gone to the richest 1 percent surged to 19 percent in 2012 from 8 percent in 1980, the IMF’s report noted.
Similar gains have occurred in other “English-speaking countries,” the report said, and in China and India. By contrast, the share of income that’s gone to the top 1 percent in Europe and Japan has scarcely risen.
Income disparities are fueling rising concern around the world and protests in countries such as Brazil and Turkey. Many countries have sought the IMF’s help in addressing the issue, the report said.
Government tax and spending policies can be effective in reducing inequality, the report said. Such policies have lowered the income gap by an average of one-third in advanced economies, mostly because of money transferred to the poorest households.
Last month, an IMF research paper concluded that countries with steep income inequality were more likely to have briefer and weaker periods of economic growth. It also argued that efforts to redistribute income don’t necessarily hinder economic expansion.
That runs counter to traditional thinking, which generally assumes a trade-off between economic growth and efforts to reduce inequality. Under this view, a higher tax rate on the wealthy or higher spending on social welfare, while it may reduce income inequality, would likely depress growth.
Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, said last month that income inequality “can have pernicious effects” and that “careful design of tax and spending policies can help reduce inequality.”