Chris Giles and Sarah O’Connor in the FT:
When academic economics was obsessed by free markets and a ruthless search for efficiency, while simply seeing societies as populated by multiple copies of one representative individual, the study and measurement of inequality was deeply unfashionable.
Sir Tony Atkinson, who died aged 72 on New Year’s Day, was the British economist who kept that flame alive through the 1980s and 1990s, surviving to see it return to the centre of economic concerns on both the political left and right.
For more than 50 years Atkinson battled for economics to take poverty and inequalityseriously, crediting his interest in the subject to a stint of voluntary service working at a deprived hospital in Hamburg in the mid-1960s. From 1967 when he took up a fellowship at St John’s College, Cambridge, he dedicated himself to the theory and the practicalities of understanding differences in society.
Three aspects of Atkinson’s work stand out. First came his concern about understanding the causes and consequences of poverty. This was a practical passion, which led him to ask what had to change in policy to improve people’s lives.
The practicalities did not end in the don’s study or lecture theatre, however. As a social campaigner as well as academic, Atkinson also sought to improve people’s lives on the street — manning a stall in Brightlingsea market in the early 1970s, when a professor at nearby Essex university, to explain benefit entitlements to passers-by.
A second strand of his academic contribution was more theoretical. As editor of the Journal of Public Economics for 25 years, and often in partnership with Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist, he challenged the orthodoxy of free-market economics, providing answers to how to reform economies where markets are not working well and policy constraints are severe.