Skip to main content

Firming Up Inequality

Working Paper 750 | Published April 9, 2018

Download PDF

Authors

Default people image

Jae Song

Default people image

David J. Price

Default people image

Nicholas Bloom

Default people image

Till von Wachter

Firming Up Inequality

Abstract

We use a massive, matched employer-employee database for the United States to analyze the contribution of firms to the rise in earnings inequality from 1978 to 2013. We find that one-third of the rise in the variance of (log) earnings occurred within firms, whereas two-thirds of the rise occurred between firms. However, this rising between-firm variance is not accounted for by the firms themselves: the firm-related rise in the variance can be decomposed into two roughly equally important forces—a rise in the sorting of high-wage workers to high-wage firms and a rise in the segregation of similar workers between firms. In contrast, we do not find a rise in the variance of firm-specific pay once we control for worker composition. Instead, we see a substantial rise in dispersion of person-specific pay, accounting for 68% of rising inequality, potentially due to rising returns to skill. The rise in between-firm variance, mostly due to worker sorting and segregation, accounted for a particularly large share of the total increase in inequality in smaller and medium firms (explaining 84% for firms with fewer than 10,000 employees). In contrast, in the very largest firms with 10,000+ employees, 42% of the increase in the variance of earnings took place within firms, driven by both declines in earnings for employees below the median and a substantial rise in earnings for the 10% best-paid employees. However, because of their small number, the contribution of the very top 50 or so earners at large firms to the overall increase in within-firm earnings inequality is small.


Published in: _Quarterly Journal of Economics_ (vol. 134, no. 1, February 2019, pp. 1-50) https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjy025.