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Rising Wage Inequality: The Role of Composition and Prices

  • David H. Autor
  • Lawrence F. Katz
  • Melissa S. Kearney

During the early 1980s, earnings inequality in the U. S. labor market rose relatively uniformly throughout the wage distribution. But this uniformity gave way to a significant divergence starting in 1987, with upper-tail (90/50) inequality rising steadily and lower tail (50/10) inequality either flattening or compressing for the next 16 years (1987 to 2003). This paper applies and extends a quantile decomposition technique proposed by Machado and Mata (2005) to evaluate the role of changing labor force composition (in terms of education and experience) and changing labor market prices to the expansion and subsequent divergence of upper- and lower-tail inequality over the last three decades We show that the extended Machado-Mata quantile decomposition corrects shortcomings of the original Juhn-Murphy-Pierce (1993) full distribution accounting method and nests the kernel reweighting approach proposed by DiNardo, Fortin and Lemieux (1996). Our analysis reveals that shifts in labor force composition have positively impacted earnings inequality during the 1990s. But these compositional shifts have primarily operated on the lower half of the earnings distribution by muting a contemporaneous, countervailing lower-tail price compression. The steady rise of upper tail inequality since the late 1970s appears almost entirely explained by ongoing between-group price changes (particularly increasing wage differentials by education) and residual price changes.

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Paper provided by Harvard - Institute of Economic Research in its series Harvard Institute of Economic Research Working Papers with number 2096.

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Date of creation: 2005
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Handle: RePEc:fth:harver:2096
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  3. DiNardo, John & Fortin, Nicole M & Lemieux, Thomas, 1996. "Labor Market Institutions and the Distribution of Wages, 1973-1992: A Semiparametric Approach," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 64(5), pages 1001-44, September.
  4. Juhn, Chinhui & Murphy, Kevin M & Pierce, Brooks, 1993. "Wage Inequality and the Rise in Returns to Skill," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 101(3), pages 410-42, June.
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  8. Jacob A. Mincer, 1974. "Schooling, Experience, and Earnings," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number minc74-1, December.
  9. Maarten Goos & Alan Manning, 2007. "Lousy and Lovely Jobs: The Rising Polarization of Work in Britain," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 89(1), pages 118-133, February.
  10. Lawrence F. Katz & Kevin M. Murphy, 1991. "Changes in Relative Wages, 1963-1987: Supply and Demand Factors," NBER Working Papers 3927, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Katz, Lawrence F. & Autor, David H., 1999. "Changes in the wage structure and earnings inequality," Handbook of Labor Economics, in: O. Ashenfelter & D. Card (ed.), Handbook of Labor Economics, edition 1, volume 3, chapter 26, pages 1463-1555 Elsevier.
  12. Blau, Francine D & Kahn, Lawrence M, 1997. "Swimming Upstream: Trends in the Gender Wage Differential in 1980s," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 15(1), pages 1-42, January.
  13. David Card & Thomas Lemieux, 2000. "Can Falling Supply Explain the Rising Return to College for Younger Men? A Cohort-Based Analysis," NBER Working Papers 7655, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. Lynn Karoly & Gary Burtless, 1995. "Demographic change, rising earnings inequality, and the distribution of personal well-being, 1959–1989," Demography, Springer, vol. 32(3), pages 379-405, August.
  15. David Lebow & Louise Sheiner & Larry Slifman & Martha Starr-McCluer, 1999. "Recent trends in compensation practices," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 1999-32, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  16. Jaeger, David A, 1997. "Reconciling the Old and New Census Bureau Education Questions: Recommendations for Researchers," Journal of Business & Economic Statistics, American Statistical Association, vol. 15(3), pages 300-309, July.
  17. José Mata & José A. F. Machado, 2005. "Counterfactual decomposition of changes in wage distributions using quantile regression," Journal of Applied Econometrics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 20(4), pages 445-465.
  18. Oaxaca, Ronald, 1973. "Male-Female Wage Differentials in Urban Labor Markets," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 14(3), pages 693-709, October.
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