The Implications of Flat or Declining Real Wages for Inequality

Michael Stephens | July 24, 2014

by Julie L. Hotchkiss, a research economist and senior policy adviser at the Atlanta Fed, and Fernando Rios-Avila, a research scholar at the Levy Institute

A recent Policy Note published by the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College shows that what we thought had been a decade of essentially flat real wages (since 2002) has actually been a decade of declining real wages. Replicating the second figure in that Policy Note, Chart 1 shows that holding experience (i.e., age) and education fixed at their levels in 1994, real wages per hour are at levels not seen since 1997. In other words, growth in experience and education within the workforce during the past decade has propped up wages.

Chart 1_Actual and Fixed Real Wages

The implication for inequality of this growth in education and experience was only touched on in the Policy Note that Levy published. In this post, we investigate more fully what contribution growth in educational attainment has made to the growth in wage inequality since 1994.

The Gini coefficient is a common statistic used to measure the degree of inequality in income or wages within a population. The Gini ranges between 0 and 100, with a value of zero reflecting perfect equality and a value of 100 reflecting perfect inequality. The Gini is preferred to other, simpler indices, like the 90/10 ratio, which is simply the income in the 90th percentile divided by the income in the 10th percentile, because the Gini captures information along the entire distribution rather than merely information in the tails.

Chart 2 plots the Gini coefficient calculated for the actual real hourly wage distribution in the United States in each year between 1994 and 2013 and for the counterfactual wage distribution, holding education and/or age fixed at their 1994 levels in order to assess how much changes in age and education over the same period account for growth in wage inequality. In 2013, the Gini coefficient for the actual real wage distribution is roughly 33, meaning that if two people were drawn at random from the wage distribution, the expected difference in their wages is equal to 66 percent of the average wage in the distribution. (You can read more about interpreting the Gini coefficient.) A higher Gini implies that, first, the expected wage gap between two people has increased, holding the average wage of the distribution constant; or, second, the average wage of the distribution has decreased, holding the expected wage gap constant; or, third, some combination of these two events.

Chart2_Wage Distribution Gini Coefficients over Time

The first message from Chart 2 is that—as has been documented numerous other places (here and here, for example)—inequality has been growing in the United States, which can be seen by the rising value of the Gini coefficient over time. The Gini coefficient’s 1.27-point rise means that between 1994 and 2013 the expected gap in wages between two randomly drawn workers has gotten two and a half (2 times 1.27, or 2.54) percentage points larger relative to the average wage in the distribution. Since the average real wage is higher in 2013 than in 1994, the implication is that the expected wage gap between two randomly drawn workers grew faster than the overall average wage grew. In other words, the tide rose, but not the same for all workers.

The second message from Chart 2 is that the aging of the workforce has contributed hardly anything to the growth in inequality over time: the Gini coefficient since 2009 for the wage distribution that holds age constant is essentially identical to the Gini coefficient for the actual wage distribution. However, the growth in education is another story.

In the absence of the growth in education during the same period, inequality would not have grown as much. The Gini coefficient for the actual real wage distribution in 2013 is 1.27 points higher than it was in 1994, whereas it’s only 0.49 points higher for the wage distribution, holding education fixed. The implication is that growth in education has accounted for about 61 percent of the growth in inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) during this period.

Chart 3 shows the growth in education producing this result. The chart makes apparent the declines in the share of the workforce with less than a high school degree and the share with a high school degree, as is the increase in the shares of the workforce with college and graduate degrees.

Chart 3_Distribution of the Workforce across Educational Status

There is little debate about whether income inequality has been rising in the United States for some time, and more dramatically recently. The degree to which education has exacerbated inequality or has the potential to reduce inequality, however, offers a more robust debate. We intend this post to add to the evidence that growing educational attainment has contributed to rising inequality. This assertion is not meant to imply that education has been the only source of the rise in inequality or that educational attainment is undesirable. The message is that growth in educational attainment is clearly associated with growing inequality, and understanding that association will be central to understanding the overall growth in inequality in the United States.

(cross-posted from the Atlanta Fed macroblog)


One Response to “The Implications of Flat or Declining Real Wages for Inequality”

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  1. Comment by Tyler — July 24, 2014 at 9:40 am   Reply

    I think the federal minimum wage should be at least $20.

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