By James R. Hagerty

Before beginning his studies at the University of Cambridge, Anthony Atkinson spent half a year volunteering at a hospital in a poor section of Hamburg, Germany. He later said that experience helped inspire his studies of poverty and the economics of inequality.

As a professor at the London School of Economics and other institutions, Mr. Atkinson focused on inequality starting in the 1960s, when the subject was a backwater, only to find it was a hot topic late in his life. Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose 2014 book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" sparked discussion far beyond academia, cited Mr. Atkinson as a major influence.

After he was diagnosed with myeloma in 2013, Mr. Atkinson setforth his policy prescriptions in the book "Inequality: What Can Be Done?" Among his proposals: governments should guarantee public employment at the minimum wage "to those who seek it" and provide a "capital endowment," or "minimum inheritance," to 18-year-olds.

Mr. Atkinson died Jan. 1 in Oxford. He was 72.

Though some of his suggestions are well to the left of prevailing economic beliefs in the U.S. and Britain, Mr. Atkinson denied they were unrealistic. "This is not revolutionary stuff at all," he told Britain's Independent news website in 2015. Governments in the U.S. and Europe have created jobs for the unemployed before, he noted.

Inequality breeds crime and ill health, and extreme inequality may be "incompatible with a functioning democracy," he wrote. Fostering a level playing field wasn't enough: "Individuals may exert effort but have bad luck." Even if everyone started with equal opportunity, he added, "we cannot ignore those for whom the outcome is hardship."

Anthony Barnes Atkinson was born Sept. 4, 1944, in Caerleon, Wales. His father taught carpentry. The younger Mr. Atkinson earned a bachelor's degree from Churchill College, Cambridge, in 1966. He then held various teaching, research and administrative posts at Cambridge; the University of Essex, University College London; Nuffield College at the University of Oxford, and the London School of Economics. He developed a measure of inequality known as the Atkinson Index.

With Joseph Stiglitz, later a Nobel Prize winner, he jointly wrote the 1980 textbook "Lectures on Public Economics." Mr. Atkinson said he kept a page of Dr. Stiglitz's revisions to one chapter "as documentary evidence that mine was not the worst handwriting in the world."

His pastimes included sailing and listening to Bob Dylan, who is quoted in Mr. Atkinson's "What Can Be Done" book. He dedicated that book to "the wonderful people who work in the National Health Service."

He is survived by his wife, the former Judith Mandeville, a social worker specializing in mental health and adoption, and by three children and eight grandchildren.

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 13, 2017 10:14 ET (15:14 GMT)

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