Changes in Wage Inequality, 1970-1990

30 Pages Posted: 24 Jul 2000

See all articles by Jacob Mincer

Jacob Mincer

Columbia University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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Date Written: November 1996


Differences in wages between skill groups declined in the 1970's and rose in the 1980's, but aggregate wage inequality grew throughout the period. This divergence remains a puzzle in recent studies of U.S. wage inequality. In this paper the sometimes divergent paths of inter-group and intra-group inequality are explained by the human capital approach. In it, wages are the return on cumulated human capital investments. In turn, interpersonal distributions of investments and of marginal rates of return on them are determined by individual supply and demand curves. Recent studies have shown that relative growth of human capital supply in the 1970's and of demand in the 1980's generated the U-shaped time pattern of ( differentials. Argument and evidence in this paper show that a widening of dispersion among individual demand curves started in the 1970's and generated a continuous expansion of ( group demand curves reflects a growing skill bias in the demand for labor. Aggregate inequality grew throughout the period because within group inequality accounts for the larger part of total inequality. The data also indicate that wage inequality grew in the face of stability in the dispersion of human capital and despite the likely decline in inequality of opportunity, as reflected in the decline in dispersion among supply curves.

Suggested Citation

Mincer, Jacob, Changes in Wage Inequality, 1970-1990 (November 1996). NBER Working Paper No. w5823. Available at SSRN:

Jacob Mincer (Contact Author)

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