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Real Wage Inequality

  • Enrico Moretti


    (University of California, Berkeley, USA and The Rimini Centre of Economic Analisys, Italy)

A large literature has documented a signi cant increase in the return to college over the past 30 years. This increase is typically measured using nominal wages. I show that from 1980 to 2000, college graduates have increasingly concentrated in metropolitan areas that are characterized by a high cost of housing. This implies that college graduates are increasingly exposed to a high cost of living and that the relative increase in their real wage may be smaller than the relative increase in their nominal wage. To measure the college premium in real terms, I de ate nominal wages using a new CPI that allows for changes in the cost of housing to vary across metropolitan areas and education groups. I nd that half of the documented increase in the return to college between 1980 and 2000 disappears when I use real wages. This nding does not appear to be driven by di erences in housing quality and is robust to a number of alternative speci cations. The implications of this nding for changes in well-being inequality depend on why college graduates sort into expensive cities. Using a simple general equilibrium model, I consider two alternative explanations. First, it is possible that the relative supply of college graduates increases in expensive cities because college graduates are increasingly attracted by amenities located in those cities. In this case, higher cost of housing re ects consumption of desirable local amenities, and there may still be a signi cant increase in well-being inequality even if the increase in real wage inequality is limited. Alternatively, it is possible that the relative demand of college graduates increases in expensive cities due to shifts in the relative productivity of skilled labor. In this case, the relative increase in skilled workers' standard of living is o set by higher cost of living. The empirical evidence indicates that relative demand shifts are more important than relative supply shifts, suggesting that the increase in well-being inequality between 1980 and 2000 is smaller than the increase in nominal wage inequality. I thank David Card, Tom Davido , Ed Glaeser, Chang-Tai Hsieh, Pat Kline, Douglas Krupka and David Levine for insightful conversations, and seminar participants at Berkeley Economics, Berkeley Haas, Collegio Carlo Alberto in Torino, IZA, San Francisco Federal Reserve and UC Merced for many useful comments. I thank Emek Basker for generously providing the Accra data on consumption prices. Issi Romen, Mariana Carrera, Justin Gallagher, Jonas Hjort, Max Kasy and Zach Liscow provided excellent research assistance.

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Paper provided by The Rimini Centre for Economic Analysis in its series Working Paper Series with number 34-08.

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Date of creation: Jan 2008
Date of revision: Jan 2008
Handle: RePEc:rim:rimwps:34-08
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  1. Roback, Jennifer, 1982. "Wages, Rents, and the Quality of Life," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 90(6), pages 1257-78, December.
  2. Edward L. Glaeser & Joseph Gyourko, 2001. "Urban Decline and Durable Housing," Harvard Institute of Economic Research Working Papers 1931, Harvard - Institute of Economic Research.
  3. repec:tpr:qjecon:v:107:y:1992:i:1:p:35-78 is not listed on IDEAS
  4. David H. Autor & Frank Levy & Richard J. Murnane, 2003. "The skill content of recent technological change: an empirical exploration," Proceedings, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, issue Nov.
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  6. Moretti, Enrico, 2004. "Estimating the social return to higher education: evidence from longitudinal and repeated cross-sectional data," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 121(1-2), pages 175-212.
  7. Ian Dew-Becker & Robert J. Gordon, 2005. "Where Did Productivity Growth Go? Inflation Dynamics and the Distribution of Income," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 36(2), pages 67-150.
  8. Ian Dew-Becker & Robert J. Gordon, 2005. "Where Did the Productivity Growth Go? Inflation Dynamics and the Distribution of Income," NBER Working Papers 11842, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  9. David H. Autor & Lawrence F. Katz & Alan B. Krueger, 1997. "Computing Inequality: Have Computers Changed the Labor Market?," NBER Working Papers 5956, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Gordon B. Dahl, 2002. "Mobility and the Return to Education: Testing a Roy Model with Multiple Markets," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 70(6), pages 2367-2420, November.
  11. Krupka, Douglas J., 2007. "Location-Specific Human Capital, Location Choice and Amenity Demand," IZA Discussion Papers 2987, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  12. Michael Greenstone & Richard Hornbeck & Enrico Moretti, 2008. "Identifying Agglomeration Spillovers: Evidence from Million Dollar Plants," Working Paper Series 36-08, The Rimini Centre for Economic Analysis, revised Jan 2008.
  13. James Heckman & Lance Lochner & Christopher Taber, 1998. "Explaining Rising Wage Inequality: Explanations With A Dynamic General Equilibrium Model of Labor Earnings With Heterogeneous Agents," Review of Economic Dynamics, Elsevier for the Society for Economic Dynamics, vol. 1(1), pages 1-58, January.
  14. James Heckman & Lance Lockner & Christopher Taber, 1999. "Human capital formation and general equilibrium treatment effects: a study of tax and tuition policy," Fiscal Studies, Institute for Fiscal Studies, vol. 20(1), pages 25-40, March.
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  17. Jeff Grogger & Eric Eide, 1995. "Changes in College Skills and the Rise in the College Wage Premium," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 30(2), pages 280-310.
  18. Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz, 2007. "Long-Run Changes in the U.S. Wage Structure: Narrowing, Widening, Polarizing," NBER Working Papers 13568, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  19. Joseph Gyourko & Christopher Mayer & Todd Sinai, 2006. "Superstar Cities," NBER Working Papers 12355, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  20. Katz, L.F. & Murphy, K.M., 1991. "Changes in Relative Wages, 1963-1987: Supply and Demand Factors," Harvard Institute of Economic Research Working Papers 1580, Harvard - Institute of Economic Research.
  21. Robert J. Gordon & Ian Dew-Becker, 2008. "Controversies about the Rise of American Inequality: A Survey," NBER Working Papers 13982, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  22. Yuichi Kitamura & William Johnson & Derek Neal, 2000. "Evaluating a Simple Method for Estimating Black-White Gaps in Median Wages," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(2), pages 339-343, May.
  23. 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.
  24. Bound, John & Johnson, George, 1992. "Changes in the Structure of Wages in the 1980's: An Evaluation of Alternative Explanations," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(3), pages 371-92, June.
  25. Hamermesh, Daniel S, 1992. "A General Model of Dynamic Labor Demand," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 74(4), pages 733-37, November.
  26. 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.
  27. Bound, John & Holzer, Harry J, 2000. "Demand Shifts, Population Adjustments, and Labor Market Outcomes during the 1980s," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 18(1), pages 20-54, January.
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