Department Talk: Understanding Wage Inequality

The Queens College Sociology Workshop returns for the Spring to welcome Siwei Cheng from NYU Sociology.

Time: February 13 (Thursday), 12:15-1:30 PM

Location: PH Room 333

Title: “Changing Contours: The Polarization of the U.S. Wage Distribution Revisited”

Speaker: Siwei Cheng (New York University, Sociology)

Abstract. An emerging literature has documented the polarization of the American labor market since the 1980s. However, prior work has (1) almost exclusively focused on the polarization between rather than within occupations, (2) largely overlooked the distinction between compositional and relative wage changes, and (3) paid insufficient attention to the differential impact of polarization on different subsets of the labor force. We argue that all three limitations stem in part from the same methodological challenge—the lack of an approach for conceptualizing and quantifying polarization at the level of individual workers. We take on this challenge and develop a new analytic framework for studying wage polarization. We show that wage polarization has occurred both between and within detailed occupations. About 60%-90% of the total degree of wage polarization remains after adjusting for changes in occupational composition over the three decades. Moreover, wage polarization has disproportionately disadvantaged the economic positions of less educated individuals and individuals in service occupations and in the meantime raised the economic positions of college graduates and individuals in professional occupations. Taken together, these findings indicate that previous studies’ methodological choice to focus on between-occupation polarization has hindered their ability to unveil a full picture of wage polarization. Our proposed individual-level framework offers a valuable analytical tool that fills this gap.

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