how mathew effect affects inequality 3 11

You've probably heard the saying "the rich get richer" before. But have you ever stopped to wonder why that tends to happen? The answer lies in a fascinating concept called the Matthew Principle. Named after a famous biblical story, this principle has profound implications across many areas of life.

The Parable Behind the Principle

The Matthew Principle is named from the Parable of the Talents in the Gospel of Matthew. In the story, a wealthy man distributes money ("talents") among three servants to invest while away. Upon returning, the master rewards the servants who invested well but punishes the ones who didn't by taking away his original sum.

Jesus concludes with this powerful metaphor: "For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have, will be taken from them."

Originating from Jesus' teachings, the Matthew Principle highlights the importance of wisely using one's gifts and opportunities. In the biblical context, the parable teaches stewardship and diligence in utilizing one's talents, which are rewarded in the Kingdom of Heaven. This concept emphasizes the moral obligation to employ one's abilities for the greater good, suggesting a divine endorsement of effort and responsibility.

What It Means for Our World

The Matthew Principle reveals how wealth and socioeconomic inequalities have spiraled to crisis levels in the modern era. As the divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" has widened, the compounding forces described by the principle appear to be accelerating unabated. For the ultra-wealthy and elite, privileges like exclusive education access, investment capabilities, and political influence generate exponential returns - allowing their assets and power to keep multiplying.

Simultaneously, those born into poverty face insurmountable barriers that continue stripping away opportunity and hope for upward mobility. Lacking quality schooling, adequate healthcare, or any semblance of a financial head start, the deck is stacked for disadvantages to persist across generations. Social mobility has stagnated as the rungs on the economic ladder are effectively sawed off for the have-nots.

The resulting present-day inequality is an affront to meritocratic ideals, with a child's life trajectory primarily determined by their starting circumstances rather than hard work or talent. Measures of income and wealth inequality are reaching levels not seen since the Gilded Age - a period of rampant labor exploitation, robber barons, and rising social unrest.

Many argue that today's wealth gap and dismantling of the middle class represent a full-fledged modern economic reprisal of the Matthew Principle's dynamics playing out in vicious perpetuity. Without a considerable effort to interrupt these compounding divides through progressive reforms, there are grave concerns that severe inequality will only increase - fostering further sociopolitical instability and squandering precious human potential on a generational scale.

The Science of Compounding

You may be familiar with the concept of compounding interest from personal finance. It's why saving and investing money from an early age is so powerful - your earnings generate their earnings over decades of growth.

The mathematical concept of compounding is a fundamental principle that explains how wealth can accumulate over time, making it a cornerstone of investment strategies. Compounding refers to the process where the value of an investment increases because the earnings on an investment, both capital gains and interest, earn interest as time passes. This concept is often encapsulated by the phrase "interest on interest," which means that not only do your initial investments earn returns, but those returns generate their earnings as well.

The Matthew Principle reveals that compounding forces work far beyond just money. Social capital, education access, policy influence - these advantages can compound in self-perpetuating ways for those who already possess them.

A Simple Game Illustrates the Pattern

Consider this thought experiment to grasp the Matthew Principle in action: Each group starts with $100. They engage in a series of coin flips, betting half their current wealth on each flip.

After multiple rounds, what happens? Those lucky enough to win more flips than they lose see their wealth increase exponentially through compounding. Meanwhile, those on a losing streak watch their wealth dwindle, though only partially depleted, thanks to only betting portions at a time.

What began as an equal playing field becomes extremely unequal through the forces of randomness and compounding over iterations. This simplified example mimics wealth inequality patterns in the real world through complex societal dynamics only by luck and privilege.

Superstars and Scientists

The famed sociologist Robert K. Merton recognized the Matthew Principle in scientific research. He found that eminent, well-known scientists received far more recognition than lesser-known peers - even for comparable work. Essentially, reputation bred more reputation in a perpetual cycle.

Merton also saw this effect contributing to "the rich get richer" economic realities. Access to education, risk-tolerant investing capabilities, and inherited capital advantages allow the already wealthy to generate ever-higher returns on their substantial resources.

Politics and Power

The Matthew Principle extends into the political arena, too. As wealth begets influence over policymaking, the affluent can tilt rulesets, tax codes, and institutional dynamics in their favor, fortifying the systems and concentrating resources.

Meanwhile, the underprivileged's lack of access to elite education pipelines, social capital, and risk-absorbing financial reserves makes breaking into the upper echelons immensely difficult.

Religious Interpretations

Interestingly, some religious thinkers see the societal manifestations of the Matthew Principle as antithetical to core spiritual values. "Red Letter" Christians focused on Jesus's direct teachings, highlighted in red. They highlighted his messages of humility, generosity towards people with low incomes, and caution about accumulating excessive wealth.

From this view, institutionalized religious groups sometimes exhibit their versions of the Matthew Principle by amassing cultural cachet, resources, and political sway - reinforcing a sense of ideological supremacy at odds with the values they ostensibly uphold.

An Equitable Way Forward?

The Matthew Principle underscores how initial advantages can snowball into vicious cycles of inequality if left unchecked. So, what can be done?

Many look to policies to dismantle systemic barriers, redistribute resources, and level access to opportunities from education to entrepreneurship—the goal is to interrupt the compounding of privilege to create a fairer, more equitable societal framework.

Whether through tax reforms, university admissions practices, public funding allocations, or regulatory oversight - efforts to counteract the Matthew Principle's momentum seek to make upward mobility possible for all, not just the already wealthy.

At its core, the Matthew Principle illuminates tensions between ideals of meritocracy, wealth-building incentives, and beliefs about distributive justice. While the concept's economic manifestations are undeniable, reasonable minds may disagree on resolving its ethical dilemmas.

What's clear, however, is that ignoring the dynamics highlighted by the Matthew Principle only exacerbates damaging cycles of accumulating advantage and systemic disadvantage. A thoughtful society must grapple with these realities - striving to create institutions and policies that put its values into practice.

About the Author

jenningsRobert Jennings is co-publisher of with his wife Marie T Russell. He attended the University of Florida, Southern Technical Institute, and the University of Central Florida with studies in real estate, urban development, finance, architectural engineering, and elementary education. He was a member of the US Marine Corps and The US Army having commanded a field artillery battery in Germany. He worked in real estate finance, construction and development for 25 years before starting in 1996.

InnerSelf is dedicated to sharing information that allows people to make educated and insightful choices in their personal life, for the good of the commons, and for the well-being of the planet. InnerSelf Magazine is in its 30+year of publication in either print (1984-1995) or online as Please support our work.

 Creative Commons 4.0

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License. Attribute the author Robert Jennings, Link back to the article This article originally appeared on