The rich get richer and the poor get poorer

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This article is about the catchphrase. For the theoretical process, see wealth concentration. For a full discussion of the social, economic, and political phenomena to which the phrase refers, see economic inequality.

"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer" is a catchphrase and aphorism sometimes evoked, with variations in wording, when discussing economic inequality. Its most common use is as a synopsis of a socialist criticism of the free market system (capitalism), implying the perceived inevitability of what Karl Marx called the Law of Increasing Poverty.[1]


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]

William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the U.S. (1841), said in an October 1, 1840 speech,

It is true democratic feeling, that all the measures of the government are directed to the purpose of making the rich richer and the poor poorer.[4][5]

In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley argued, in A Defence of Poetry (not published until 1840), that in his England, "the promoters of utility" had managed

to exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and want. They have 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. Such are the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise of the calculating faculty.[6]

The phrase resembles the Bible verse

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.[7]

"Ain't We Got Fun"

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.[8][9] 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.[10]

In political and economic rhetoric

Thomas Picketty'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".[11]

According to Marx, capitalism will inevitably lead to ruin in accordance with certain laws of economic movement. These laws are "the Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall," "the Law of Increasing Poverty," and "the Law of Centralization of Capital."[1] Small capitalists go bankrupt, and their production means are absorbed by large capitalists. During the process of bankruptcy and absorption, capital is gradually centralized by a few large capitalists, and the entire middle class declines. Thus, two major classes, a small minority of large capitalists, and a large proletarian majority are formed.[1]

In the United States, the phrase has been used frequently (in the past tense) to describe alleged socioeconomic trends under the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush presidencies.[12][13][14]

Other uses

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).

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Sang Hun Lee (1973). "Communism: A New Critique And Counterproposal". Freedom Leadership Foundation. 
  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. "William Henry Harrison quotes". James Richard Howington (personal web page). Retrieved 2006-08-12. 
  4. Degregorio, William (1997). Complete Book of U.S. Presidents: From George Washington to George W. Bush. Gramercy. ISBN 0-517-18353-6. , p. 146; quotes "all the measures of the government are directed to the purpose of making the rich richer and the poor poorer" and sources it to Schlesinger, Arthur (1946). The Age of Jackson. Boston: Little, Brown. , p. 292
  5. Shelley, Percy Bysshe (1909–14). A Defence of Poetry (from the Harvard Classics: English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. 
  6. Matthew 13:12, King James translation
  7. "Ain't We Got Fun". Retrieved 2006-08-11. 
  8. "Ain't We Got Fun". Don Ferguson. Archived from the original on 2004-12-10. Retrieved 2006-08-11. 
  9. 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]
  11. James K. Galbraith. "The rich got richer." Salon Magazine, June 8, 2004
  12. Edward N. Wolf. "The rich get increasingly richer: Latest data on household wealth during the 1980s." Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper #36. 1993.
  13. Alan Reynolds. "Upstarts and Downstarts (The Real Reagan Record)." National Review, August 31, 1992.

Further reading

  • 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. doi:10.1007/s100510050249.  — 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. JSTOR 2328824. doi:10.2307/2328824.  — Chung and Cox analyze a bibliometric regularity in finance literature, relating Lotka's law of scientific prductivity to the maxim that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer", and equating it to the maxim that "success breeds success".