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Earnings Inequality and Mobility Trends in the United States: Nationally Representative Estimates from Longitudinally Linked Employer-Employee Data

John M. Abowd, Kevin L. McKinney, Nellie L. Zhao

NBER Working Paper No. 23224
Issued in March 2017
NBER Program(s):Labor Studies

Using earnings data from the U.S. Census Bureau, this paper analyzes the role of the employer in explaining the rise in earnings inequality in the United States. We first establish a consistent frame of analysis appropriate for administrative data used to study earnings inequality. We show that the trends in earnings inequality in the administrative data from the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics Program are inconsistent with other data sources when we do not correct for the presence of misused SSNs. After this correction to the worker frame, we analyze how the earnings distribution has changed in the last decade. We present a decomposition of the year-to-year changes in the earnings distribution from 2004-2013. Even when simplifying these flows to movements between the bottom 20%, the middle 60%, and the top 20% of the earnings distribution, about 20.5 million workers undergo a transition each year. Another 19.9 million move between employment and non-employment. To understand the role of the firm in these transitions, we estimate a model for log earnings with additive fixed worker and firm effects using all jobs held by eligible workers from 2004-2013. We construct a composite log earnings firm component across all jobs for a worker in a given year and a non-firm component. We also construct a skill-type index. We show that, while the difference between working at a low- or middle-paying firm are relatively small, the gains from working at a top-paying firm are large. Specifically, the benefits of working for a high-paying firm are not only realized today, through higher earnings paid to the worker, but also persist through an increase in the probability of upward mobility. High-paying firms facilitate moving workers to the top of the earnings distribution and keeping them there.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23224

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