Causes of Growing Inequality

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze the sources of income inequality and its effect on a market economy

Changing Composition of American Households

Prior to the 1970s, most American families were supported by one wage earner.  This was typically the husband, while the wife stayed home. In 1970, 41% of married women were in the labor force, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2015, the figure was 56.7%. We know that the average wage rate, adjusted for inflation, peaked during the mid-1970s and has stagnated or declined since then (depending on how it is measured). This would have caused families with middle class incomes to slip down in the income distribution, if only the husband was employed. The initial impact of the increase in women’s labor market participation, then, was to keep family incomes in the middle class since there were now two wage earners.

Overtime, though, a new phenomenon arose: it has become more common for one high earner to marry another high earner. A few decades ago, the common pattern featured a man with relatively high earnings, such as an executive or a doctor, marrying a woman who did not earn as much, like a secretary or a nurse. Often, the woman would leave paid employment, at least for a few years, to raise a family. However, now doctors are marrying doctors and executives are marrying executives, and mothers with high-powered careers are often returning to work while their children are quite young. This pattern of households with two high earners tends to increase the proportion of high-earning households.

According to data in the National Journal, even as two-earner couples have increased, so have single-parent households. Of all U.S. families, 13.1% were headed by single mothers. The poverty rate among single-parent households tends to be relatively high.

These changes in family structure, including the growth of single-parent families who tend to be at the lower end of the income distribution, and the growth of two-career high-earner couples near the top end of the income distribution, account for roughly half of the rise in income inequality across households in recent decades.

Watch It

When asked about the “ideal” distribution of wealth in America, a majority people guessed wrong. Watch this video to see how incredibly far-off they were in their predictions and what the distribution of wealth really looks like. While the video was created several years ago, the same concerns are still applicable today.

Shift in the Distribution of Wages

Another factor behind the rise in U.S. income inequality is that earnings have become less equal since the late 1970s. In particular, the earnings of high-skilled labor relative to low-skilled labor have increased. It used to be that a man could find a well paid job—one that would put his family in the middle class—with only a high school diploma. Those jobs are increasingly hard to find. By contrast, more and more jobs require at least some post-secondary education, if not a 4-year degree.

One way to measure this change is to take workers’ earnings with at least a four-year college bachelor’s degree (including those who went on and completed an advanced degree) and divide them by workers’ earnings with only a high school degree. The result is that those in the 25–34 age bracket with college degrees earned about 1.67 times as much as high school graduates in 2010, up from 1.59 times in 1995, according to U.S. Census data.

Economists use the demand and supply model to reason through the most likely causes of this shift. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in recent decades, the supply of U.S. workers with college degrees has increased substantially. For example, 840,000 four-year bachelor’s degrees were conferred on Americans in 1970. In 2013-2014, 1,894,934 such degrees were conferred—an increase of over 90%. In Figure 1. this shift in supply to the right, from S0 to S1, should result in a lower equilibrium wage for high-skilled labor. Thus, we can explain the increase in the price of high-skilled labor by a greater demand, like the movement from D0 to D1. Evidently, combining both the increase in supply and in demand has resulted in a shift from E0 to E1, and a resulting higher wage.

The graph shows how wages rise for high-skilled labor even though supply increases. The graph has two upward sloping supply curves, two downward sloping demand curves, and two points of equilibrium.

Figure 1. Why Would Wages Rise for High-Skilled Labor? The proportion of workers attending college has increased in recent decades, so the supply curve for high-skilled labor has shifted to the right, from S0 to S1. If the demand for high-skilled labor had remained at D0, then this shift in supply would have led to lower wages for high-skilled labor. However, the wages for high-skilled labor, especially if there is a large global demand, have increased even with the shift in supply to the right. The explanation must lie in a shift to the right in demand for high-skilled labor, from D0 to D1. The figure shows how a combination of the shift in supply, from S0 to S1, and the shift in demand, from D0 to D1, led to both an increase in the quantity of high-skilled labor hired and also to a rise in the wage for such labor, from W0 to W1.

What factors would cause the demand for high-skilled labor to rise? The most plausible explanation is that while the explosion in new information and communications technologies over the last several decades has helped many workers to become more productive, the benefits have been especially great for high-skilled workers like top business managers, consultants, and design professionals. The new technologies have also helped to encourage globalization, the remarkable increase in international trade over the last few decades, by making it more possible to learn about and coordinate economic interactions all around the world. In turn, the rising impact of foreign trade in the U.S. economy has opened up greater opportunities for high-skilled workers to sell their services around the world, and lower-skilled workers have to compete with a larger supply of similarly skilled workers around the globe.

We can view the market for high-skilled labor as a race between forces of supply and demand. Additional education and on-the-job training will tend to increase the high-skilled labor supply and to hold down its relative wage. Conversely, new technology and other economic trends like globalization tend to increase the demand for high-skilled labor and push up its relative wage. We can view the greater inequality of wages as a sign that demand for skilled labor is increasing faster than supply. Alternatively, if the supply of lower skilled workers exceeds the demand, then average wages in the lower quintiles of the income distribution will decrease. The combination of forces in the high-skilled and low-skilled labor markets leads to increased income disparity.

Try It

Watch It

The following video explains part of the reason for the increase in income inequality in the U.S.