Économie et Statistique n° 417-418 - 2008Household Assets: Recent Developments
Intergenerational Mobility of Household Assets in France in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries
The rapid increase in inequality observed in most developed countries for the past 25 years fits into a longer-term pattern. In France, wage inequality remained broadly stable in the twentieth century, while capital inequality diminished after the two world wars and the 1929 crisis, before rising again recently. However, we need to supplement the findings on inequality with an analysis of mobility. Now recent studies show that mobility in Europe—both in social terms (occupational categories) and in income terms—resembles that observed in the United States. By using a French historical individual and family data base, we can analyze intergenerational asset mobility in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This long period saw major structural changes—industrialization, rise of the salariat, increased occupational autonomy of women—as well as short-term economic and political shocks. Intergenerational asset mobility, if measured only for the population that left an inheritance from one generation to the next, was close to the income mobility estimated in recent years. However, this apparent stability went hand in hand with a variation over time: mobility decreased during the Belle Époque (1895-1913), then rose after the First World War. We can also discern heterogeneity between rich and poor: social-reproduction mechanisms grew stronger in the “small fortunes” category, no doubt owing to the transfer of educational capital; by contrast, at the top of the distribution scale, war, inflation, and taxation combined to erode wealth after the First World War.