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The Evolution of U.S. Earnings Inequality: 1961–2002

Quarterly Review 2822 | Published December 1, 2004

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The Evolution of U.S. Earnings Inequality: 1961–2002


The goal of this article is to summarize the main trends in the earnings and employment distribution in the United States using data drawn from the March Current Population Surveys covering the period between 1961 and 2002. We show that inequality started to increase for men in 1974, and for women in 1981, and for both genders inequality continued to increase throughout 2002. During the same period the wage premium of college graduates over non-college workers increased substantially and the ratio of college educated workers to non-college workers also increased. These facts support the popular skill-biased technical change (SBTC) hypothesis. However, other facts raise some doubts about the SBTC hypothesis. First, the college wage premium is mainly due to workers with a postgraduate degree, but their increase in the labor force started much earlier than the spectacular rise in their wages. Also there has been no marked change in recent decades in the occupational distribution of workers. However, the earning premium of professional over blue collar workers followed the same trend as the college earning premium. And finally, the most dramatic changes in the labor market took place among women.