The rich get richer and the poor get poorer

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"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer" is an aphorism attributed to Percy Bysshe Shelley. In A Defence of Poetry (1821, not published until 1840) Shelley remarked that the promoters of utility had exemplified the saying, "To him that hath, more shall be given; and from him that hath not, the little that he hath shall be taken away. The rich have become richer, and the poor have become poorer; and the vessel of the State is driven between the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism."[1] It describes a positive feedback loop (a corresponding negative feedback loop would be e.g. progressive tax).

"To him that hath" etc. is a reference to Matthew 25:29 (the parable of the talents, see also Matthew effect). The aphorism is commonly evoked, with variations in wording, as a synopsis of the effect of free market capitalism producing excessive inequality.


Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the U.S. (1829–1837), in his 1832 bank veto, said that "when the laws undertake ... to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society ... have a right to complain of the injustice to their Government."[2][3] The phrase also has connections to Martial's epigrams. In one of his epigrams, he states, "You will always be poor, if you are poor, Aemiliane. Now money is given to none except the rich."

The phrase also resembles two Bible verses from the Gospel of Matthew:

For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath ...[4]

For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.[5]

"Ain't We Got Fun"[edit]

The phrase was popularized in 1921 in the wildly successful song "Ain't We Got Fun?", and the phrase is sometimes attributed to the song's lyricists, Gus Kahn and Raymond B. Egan.[6][7] The line is sometimes mistakenly attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald. It appears in The Great Gatsby, as "the rich get richer and the poor get—children!" The character Gatsby orders the character Klipspringer, sitting at the piano, "Don't talk so much, old sport... Play!" and Klipspringer breaks into the Whiting, Kahn and Egan song.[8]

In economics[edit]

Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) presents a body of empirical data spanning several hundred years that supports his central thesis that the owners of capital accumulate wealth more quickly than those who provide labour, a phenomenon widely described with the term "the rich-get-richer".[9]

In modern politics[edit]

In the United States, the phrase has been used frequently to describe socioeconomic trends under the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush presidencies,[10][11][12] and in the United Kingdom to refer to the Thatcher era.[13] In 1990, Thatcher responded to a question posed in the House of Commons by the Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes about wealth inequality in the UK by saying "he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. ... What a policy. Yes, he would rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That is the Liberal policy."[14] It has also been used in the UK to refer to the 2010–2015 coalition and 2015–2016 governments led by David Cameron.[15]

Other uses[edit]

In statistics, the phrase "the rich get richer" is often used as an informal description of the behavior of Chinese restaurant processes and other preferential attachment processes, where the probability of the next outcome in a series taking on a particular value is proportional to the number of outcomes already having that particular value. This is useful for modeling many real-world processes that are akin to "popularity contests", where the popularity of a particular choice causes new participants to adopt the same choice (which can lead to the outsized influence of the first few participants).

Product recommendations and information about past purchases have been shown to influence consumers choices significantly whether it is for music, movie, book, technological, and other type of products. Social influence often induces a rich-get-richer phenomenon (Matthew effect) where popular products tend to become even more popular.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1909–14). A Defence of Poetry (from the Harvard Classics: English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay.
  2. ^ Watson, Harry L. (1998). Andrew Jackson V. Henry Clay: Democracy and Development in Antebellum America. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-312-17772-0. [1]
  3. ^
  4. ^ Matthew 13:12
  5. ^ Matthew 25:29
  6. ^ "Ain't We Got Fun". Retrieved 2006-08-11.
  7. ^ "Ain't We Got Fun". Don Ferguson. Archived from the original on 2004-12-10. Retrieved 2006-08-11.
  8. ^ Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1998) [1921]. The Great Gatsby. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-283269-7. p. 76; also at Project Gutenberg of Australia [2]
  9. ^ Solow, Robert M. (23 April 2014). "Thomas Piketty is Right". The New Republic.
  10. ^ James K. Galbraith. "The rich got richer Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine." Salon, June 8, 2004
  11. ^ Edward N. Wolf. "The rich get increasingly richer: Latest data on household wealth during the 1980s Archived 2004-10-23 at the Library of Congress Web Archives." Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper #36. 1993.
  12. ^ Alan Reynolds. "Upstarts and Downstarts (The Real Reagan Record)." National Review, August 31, 1992.
  13. ^ Nunns, Alex (April 2013). "Dispelling the Thatcher myths". Red Pepper. Retrieved 2 May 2016. It's said that Thatcher made the British people richer. She didn't. ... The rich got richer; the poor got poorer.
  14. ^ "HC S: [Confidence in Her Majesty's Government]". House of Commons Speech. No. 22 November 1990. Hansard HC [181/445-53]. 22 November 1990. Retrieved 2 May 2016 – via Margaret Thatcher Foundation. People on all levels of income are better off than they were in 1979. The hon. Gentleman is saying that he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That way one will never create the wealth for better social services, as we have. What a policy. Yes, he would rather have the poor poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. That is the Liberal policy.
  15. ^ Coalition: 2015–present:
  16. ^ Altszyler, E; Berbeglia, F.; Berbeglia, G.; Van Hentenryck, P. (2017). "Transient dynamics in trial-offer markets with social influence: Trade-offs between appeal and quality". PLOS ONE. 12 (7): e0180040. Bibcode:2017PLoSO..1280040A. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0180040. PMC 5528888. PMID 28746334.

Further reading[edit]

  • Hayes, Brian (2002). "Follow the Money". American Scientist. 90 (5): 400. doi:10.1511/2002.5.400. — Hayes analyzes several computer models of market economies, applying statistical mechanics to questions in economic theory in the same way that it is applied in computational fluid dynamics, concluding that "If some mechanism like that of the yard-sale model is truly at work, then markets might very well be free and fair, and the playing field perfectly level, and yet the outcome would almost surely be that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."
  • Rieman, J. (1979). The Rich Get Rich and The Poor Get Poorer. New York: Wiley.
  • David Hapgood (1974). The Screwing of the Average Man — How The Rich Get Richer and You Get Poorer. Bantom Books. ISBN 0-553-12913-9.
  • Rolf R Mantel (1995). Why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Universidad de San Andrés: Victoria, prov. de Buenos Aires. OCLC 44260846.
  • Ispolatov, S.; Krapivsky, P.L.; Redner, S. (1998). "Wealth distributions in asset exchange models". The European Physical Journal B. 2 (2): 267–76. arXiv:1006.4595. Bibcode:1998EPJB....2..267I. doi:10.1007/s100510050249. S2CID 2880361. — Ispolatov, Krapivsky, and Redner analyze the wealth distributions that occur under a variety of exchange rules in a system of economically interacting people.
  • Chung, Kee H.; Cox, Raymond A. K. (1990). "Patterns of Productivity in the Finance Literature: A Study of the Bibliometric Distributions". The Journal of Finance. 45 (1): 301–9. doi:10.2307/2328824. JSTOR 2328824. — Chung and Cox analyze a bibliometric regularity in finance literature, relating Lotka's law of scientific productivity to the maxim that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer", and equating it to the maxim that "success breeds success".