Inequality in Chile: Perceptions and Patterns

CID Faculty Working Paper No. 436

Ignacia Lecaros, Daniela Paz Cruzat, Ricardo Pommer Muñoz, Pablo Tillan, and Michael Walton

September 2023


Chile has pioneered many things: a market-oriented, “neoliberal” approach to development; an impressive transition from authoritarianism to democracy; innovations in social policy; and an extraordinary series of street protests between 2006 and 2019. While often lauded as a model of economic and social development, the protests reflect acute concerns over perceived failures in the Chilean political, economic and cultural system, concerns that were profoundly inflected with issues of inequality and lack of fairness. To inform this contrast, this paper undertakes a systematic assessment of the perceptions and perspectives of Chilean citizens, both in the context of the protests and in their broader expressed views in surveys. The core theme is that “the street was right”, in the specific sense that the protests reflected much wider sentiments across social classes over perceived inequities in economic advancement, social provisioning, and the undignified “treatment” by state actors and elites. The paper then compares these perceptions with some of the “objective” measures of inequality. While alternative measures indicate modest declines in some measures of inequality, Chile remains a very high inequality society, in relation to income, wealth, and education. These perceptions and patterns are central to Chile’s current development challenges, in ways that resonate with the position of many countries in today’s polarized environment. This is the first of two papers, with the sequel exploring the underlying drivers of inequality and implications for policy direction.

Keywords: inequality, perceptions, Chile, protest, fairness, education, dignity, treatment, health, pensions, state

JEL Classification: A13; D31