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Discrimination in a Low-Wage Labor Market: A Field Experiment


  • Pager, Devah

    () (Harvard University)

  • Western, Bruce

    () (Harvard University)

  • Bonikowski, Bart

    () (Princeton University)


Decades of racial progress have led some researchers and policymakers to doubt that discrimination remains an important cause of economic inequality. To study contemporary discrimination we conducted a field experiment in the low-wage labor market of New York City. The experiment recruited white, black, and Latino job applicants, called testers, who were matched on demographic characteristics and interpersonal skills. The testers were given equivalent resumes and sent to apply in tandem for hundreds of entry-level jobs. Our results show that black applicants were half as likely to receive a callback or job offer relative to equally qualified whites. In fact, black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than a white applicant just released from prison. Additional qualitative evidence from our testers' experiences further illustrates the multiple points at which employment trajectories can be deflected by various forms of racial bias. Together these results point to the subtle but systematic forms of discrimination that continue to shape employment opportunities for low-wage workers.

Suggested Citation

  • Pager, Devah & Western, Bruce & Bonikowski, Bart, 2009. "Discrimination in a Low-Wage Labor Market: A Field Experiment," IZA Discussion Papers 4469, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  • Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp4469

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Devah Pager, 2003. "The mark of a criminal record," Natural Field Experiments 00319, The Field Experiments Website.
    2. Holzer, Harry J, 1987. "Informal Job Search and Black Youth Unemployment," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(3), pages 446-452, June.
    3. Roland G. Fryer & Steven D. Levitt, 2004. "The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 119(3), pages 767-805.
    4. Oettinger, Gerald S, 1996. "Statistical Discrimination and the Early Career Evolution of the Black-White Wage Gap," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 14(1), pages 52-78, January.
    5. Marc Bendick & Charles Jackson & Victor Reinoso, 1994. "Measuring employment discrimination through controlled experiments," The Review of Black Political Economy, Springer;National Economic Association, vol. 23(1), pages 25-48, June.
    6. Neal, Derek A & Johnson, William R, 1996. "The Role of Premarket Factors in Black-White Wage Differences," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 104(5), pages 869-895, October.
    7. Joseph G. Altonji & Charles R. Pierret, 2001. "Employer Learning and Statistical Discrimination," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 116(1), pages 313-350.
    8. Michael Fix & Raymond Struyk, 1993. "Clear and convincing evidence: Measurement of discrimination in america," Natural Field Experiments 00241, The Field Experiments Website.
    9. James J. Heckman, 1998. "Detecting Discrimination," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 12(2), pages 101-116, Spring.
    10. William A. Darity & Patrick L. Mason, 1998. "Evidence on Discrimination in Employment: Codes of Color, Codes of Gender," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 12(2), pages 63-90, Spring.
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    More about this item


    discrimination; field experiment; race; labor markets;

    JEL classification:

    • J7 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Labor Discrimination

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