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The Returns to Skill in the United States across the Twentieth Century

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Listed:
  • Claudia Goldin
  • Lawrence F. Katz

Abstract

Economic inequality is higher today than it has been since 1939, as measured by both the wage structure and wealth inequality. But the comparison between 1939 and 1999 is largely made out of necessity; the 1940 U.S. population census was the first to inquire of wage and salary income and education. We address what the returns to skill were prior to 1940 and piece together the first century-long history of skill premiums, the dispersion of the wage structure, and returns to formal schooling. We use the 1915 Iowa State Census, a remarkable and unique document, as well as several less-obscure but untapped reports. Using all of these sources, we find that the wage structure narrowed at several moments in the first half of the 20th century, not just in the 1940s, both coinciding with major economic disruptions brought about by war. The returns to education were in fact higher in 1914 than in 1939, and the enormous expansion in secondary schooling beginning in the 1910s was a contributing factor to the decrease in educational returns. Inequality and the returns to education across the entire century, therefore, first declined before their more recent and steep ascent.

Suggested Citation

  • Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz, 1999. "The Returns to Skill in the United States across the Twentieth Century," NBER Working Papers 7126, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:7126
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Kevin M. Murphy & Finis Welch, 1992. "The Structure of Wages," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 107(1), pages 285-326.
    2. Chinhui Juhn, 1999. "Wage Inequality and Demand for Skill: Evidence from Five Decades," ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 52(3), pages 424-443, April.
    3. Simon Kuznets & Elizabeth Jenks, 1953. "Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number kuzn53-1, June.
    4. Goldin, Claudia, 1998. "America's Graduation from High School: The Evolution and Spread of Secondary Schooling in the Twentieth Century," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 58(02), pages 345-374, June.
    5. 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.
    6. Costa, Dora L, 1998. "The Unequal Work Day: A Long-Term View," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 88(2), pages 330-334, May.
    7. Bishop, John Hillman, 1989. "Is the Test Score Decline Responsible for the Productivity Growth Decline?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 79(1), pages 178-197, March.
    8. Eli Berman & John Bound & Zvi Griliches, 1993. "Changes in the Demand for Skilled Labor within U.S. Manufacturing Industries: Evidence from the Annual Survey of Manufacturing," NBER Working Papers 4255, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Daron Acemoglu, 1998. "Why Do New Technologies Complement Skills? Directed Technical Change and Wage Inequality," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 113(4), pages 1055-1089.
    10. Claudia Goldin & Robert A. Margo, 1992. "The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United States at Mid-Century," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 107(1), pages 1-34.
    11. repec:hrv:faseco:30703979 is not listed on IDEAS
    12. Eli Berman & John Bound & Zvi Griliches, 1994. "Changes in the Demand for Skilled Labor within U. S. Manufacturing: Evidence from the Annual Survey of Manufactures," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 109(2), pages 367-397.
    13. George J. Stigler, 1950. "Employment and Compensation in Education," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number stig50-1, June.
    14. David M. Blank & George J. Stigler, 1957. "The Demand and Supply of Scientific Personnel," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number blan57-1, June.
    15. Edward N. Wolff, 1998. "Recent Trends in the Size Distribution of Household Wealth," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 12(3), pages 131-150, Summer.
    16. Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz, 1998. "The Origins of Technology-Skill Complementarity," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 113(3), pages 693-732.
    17. George J. Stigler, 1956. "Trends in Employment in the Service Industries," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number stig56-1, June.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J2 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor
    • N3 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy

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