A student of James Meade, Atkinson virtually single-handedly established the modern British field of inequality and poverty studies. He worked on inequality and poverty for over four decades.
Education and career
Atkinson attended Cranbrook School. After considering studying mathematics, he graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1966 with a first-class degree before spending time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He cited his interest in inequality as beginning from volunteering in a German hospital in the 1960s. He served as Warden of Nuffield College, Oxford, from 1994 to 2005. Before that he held positions at the University of Cambridge, University College London, the London School of Economics, the University of Essex and the University of Oxford. He also edited the Journal of Public Economics.
Atkinson's work was predominantly on income distributions. There is an inequality measure named after him: the Atkinson index. In a joint article with Joseph Stiglitz, he laid one of the cornerstones for the theory of optimal taxation.
In his 2015 publication Inequality: What Can Be Done?, he "called for robust taxation of the rich whom he reckons have got off easily over the last generation”
He recommended government intervention in markets such as employment guarantees and wage controls to influence the redistribution of economic rewards. He traced the history of inequality, coining the phrase the "inequality turn" to describe the period when household inequality began to rise around 1980. From the 1980s onwards, men and women "tended to marry those who earned like themselves", with rich women marrying rich men. As more women joined the workforce inequality increased.
Atkinson examined how the wealthy disproportionately influence public policy and influence governments to implement policies that protect wealth. He presented a set of policies regarding technology, employment, social security, the sharing of capital, and taxation that could shift the inequality in income distribution in developed countries. He also advocated the introduction of a basic income.
Atkinson, who worked on inequality and poverty for more than four decades, was a mentor to Thomas Piketty (author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century); they worked together on building an historical database on top incomes. Piketty described him as "the godfather of historical studies of income and wealth."
Membership and honours
He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1984, a Fellow of the Econometric Society in 1974, Honorary Member of the American Economic Association in 1985 and Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994.
He was President of the Econometric Society in 1988. He was knighted in 2000 and made a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur in 2001. He was the first person to be honoured with the A.SK Social Science Award by the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB Social Science Center in Berlin) in 2007. He was president of the board of the Luxembourg Income Study, having advised on its creation in the 1980s.
In 2016, Atkinson received the Dan David Prize for 'combatting poverty'.
Personal life and death