• Note: This paper has been partly developed when Pistolesi was visiting the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Lefranc was visiting the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute. The hospitality of these institutions is warmly acknowledged. We are grateful to R. Aaberge, U. Colombino, J. Fritzell, S. Jenkins, I. Marx, M. Page, E. Pommer, J. Roemer and G. Wagner for providing access to the data used in this paper and to Russell Davidson, John Roemer and two anonymous referees for helpful comments. We also gratefully acknowledge financial support from DRESS. Needless to say, none of the persons mentioned above should be held responsible for remaining deficiencies.

*Arnaud Lefranc, THEMA, Université de Cergy-Pontoise, 33 bd du Port, 95011 Cergy-Pontoise Cedex France (


This paper analyzes the relationship between income inequality and inequality of opportunities for income acquisition in nine developed countries during the 1990s. Equality of opportunity is defined as the situation where income distributions conditional on social origin cannot be ranked according to stochastic dominance criteria. We measure social origin by parental education and occupation and use the database built by Roemer et al. (2003). Stochastic dominance is assessed using nonparametric statistical tests. Our results indicate strong disparities in the degree of equality of opportunity across countries and a strong correlation between inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunity. The U.S. and Italy show up as the most unequal countries in terms of both outcome and opportunity. At the opposite extreme, income distributions conditional on social origin are almost the same in Scandinavian countries even before any redistributive policy. We complement the ordinal comparison by resorting to an original scalar “Gini” index of opportunities, which can be decomposed into a risk and a return component. In our sample, inequality of opportunity is mostly driven by differences in mean income conditional on social origin, and differences in risk compensate the return element in most countries.