Understanding Wage Inequality: Ben-Porath Meets Skill-Biased Technical Change
This paper introduces a tractable general equilibrium overlapping-generations model of human capital accumulation, and shows that it provides a consistent explanation of several key features of the evolution of the U.S. wage distribution from 1970 to 2000. The framework is based on the Ben-Porath (1967) model. The key feature of the model, and the only source of heterogeneity, is that individuals differ in their ability to accumulate human capital. To highlight the working of the model, we abstract from all kinds of idiosyncratic uncertainty that has been the focus of recent research. Thus, wage inequality only results from differences in human capital accumulation. The main thought experiment is the following. We calibrate the model to be consistent with the features of the wage distribution in 1970, and then consider the effect of skill-biased technical change, modeled as an increase in the returns to human capital after 1970. The model is both qualitatively and quantitatively consistent with: (i) a large increase in wage inequality but a much smaller rise in consumption inequality, which happens at the aggregate level as well as within each cohort (Krueger and Perri 2004; Blundell and Preston, 1998), (ii) a falling college-high school premium in the 70's followed by a strong rise starting in early 80's (Katz and Murphy 1992), (iii) stagnating median wages (and a slow-down in labor productivity) from mid-70's until mid-90's, (iv) the fact that the wage growth of a worker between 1965 and 1990 was almost linearly related to his position in the wage percentile distribution in 1965 (Juhn, Murphy and Pierce 1993), (v) the evolution of the 90-50 and 50-10 percentile differentials. We also show theoretically that several of these results are robust features of this model, as long as the heterogeneity in ability is sufficiently large.
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