Graduation is upon us. Many of my students are graduating with higher student loan debt than they would have imagined and limited job prospects. A few weeks back when I discussed future plans with several graduating seniors, there was a sense of dismay and a sense that the odds were against them given the poor economy and, more importantly, the trends in inequality.
The good news (which I guess could also be bad news, depending on the depth of your commitment to equality) is that the degrees they are earning may well contribute to inequality. A new paper by MIT’s David H. Autor turns attention to inequality among “the other 99 percent.” We have heard quite a bit about the growing concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent. As Autor notes:
Between 1979 and 2012, the share of all household income accruing to the top percentile of U.S. households rose from 10.0% to 22.5% To get a sense of how much money that is, consider the conceptual experiment of redistributing the gains of the top 1% between 1979 and 2012 to the bottom 99% of households. How much would this redistribution raise household incomes of the bottom 99%? The answer is $7107 per household—a substantial gain, equal to 14% of the income of the median U.S. household in 2012.
But what if we look at the “other 99 percent?” Here we have a story of the wage premium associated with higher education. And these gains simply dwarf the above-mentioned figures.
consider the earnings gap between a college-educated two-earner husband-wife family and a high school–educated two-earner husband-wife family, which rose by $27,951 between 1979 and 2012 (from $30,298 to $58,249). This increase in the earnings gap between the typical college-educated and high school–educated household earnings levels is four times as large as the redistribution that has notionally occurred from the bottom 99% to the top 1% of households. What this simple calculation suggests is that the growth of skill differentials among the “other 99 percent” is arguably even more consequential than the rise of the 1% for the welfare of most citizens.
Obviously there is a difference between cognitive ability and credentialing. My students who have majored in the “department of fashionable studies” will likely not make as great a contribution to inequality as might have been the case with a different major.
Bottom line: the paper is interesting throughout, engaging some important issues such as intergenerational mobility and the policy implications.