pp 1–25 | Cite as

Educational Variations in Cohort Trends in the Black-White Earnings Gap Among Men: Evidence From Administrative Earnings Data

  • Siwei ChengEmail author
  • Christopher R. Tamborini
  • ChangHwan Kim
  • Arthur Sakamoto


Despite efforts to improve the labor market situation of African Americans, the racial earnings gap has endured in the United States. Most prior studies on racial inequality have considered its cross-sectional or period patterns. This study adopts a demographic perspective to examine the evolution of earnings trajectories among white and black men across cohorts in the United States. Using more than 40 years of longitudinal earnings records from the U.S. Social Security Administration matched to the Survey of Income and Program Participation, our analyses reveal that the cohort trends in the racial earnings gap follow quite different patterns by education. Race continues to be a salient dimension of economic inequality over the life course and across cohorts, particularly at the top and the bottom of the educational distribution. Although the narrowing of the racial gap among high school graduates is in itself a positive development, it unfortunately derives primarily from the deteriorating economic position for whites without a college degree rather than an improvement in economic standing of their black counterparts.


Life course Cohort trends Racial and ethnic inequalities Labor market Administrative data 



Siwei Cheng acknowledges support from the Russell Sage Foundation. We thank Maria Abascal, Mike Hout, and Ted Mouw for comments on earlier versions of this article. This article was presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the Population Association of America and the 2017 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Social Security Administration (SSA) or any federal agency. Access to SSA data linked to U.S. Census Bureau survey data is subject to restrictions. The data are accessible at a secured site and must undergo disclosure review before their release. For researchers with access to these data, our programs used in this analysis are available on request.

Supplementary material

13524_2019_827_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (704 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 703 kb)


  1. Acemoglu, D., & Autor, D. (2011). Skills, tasks and technologies: Implications for employment and earnings. Handbook of Labor Economics, 4, 1043–1171.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Archer, L., DeWitt, J., Osborne, J., Dillon, J., Willis, B., & Wong, B. (2012). Science aspirations, capital, and family habitus: How families shape children’s engagement and identification with science. American Educational Research Journal, 49, 881–908.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Autor, D. H. (2013). The “task approach” to labor markets: An overview (NBER Working Paper No. 18711). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  4. Autor, D. H., & Dorn, D. (2013). The growth of low-skill service jobs and the polarization of the US labor market. American Economic Review, 103, 1553–1597.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Autor, D. H., Katz, L. F., & Kearney, M. S. (2008). Trends in U.S. wage inequality: Revising the revisionists. Review of Economics and Statistics, 90, 300–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Barsky, R., Bound, J., Charles, K. K., & Lupton, J. P. (2002). Accounting for the black–white wealth gap: A nonparametric approach. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 97, 663–673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bayer, P., & Charles, K. K. (2018). Divergent paths: A new perspective on earnings differences between black and white men since 1940. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 133, 1459–1501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bernhardt, A., Morris, M., Handcock, M. S., & Scott, M. A. (2001). Divergent paths: Economic mobility in the new American labor market. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  9. Blau, F. D., & Kahn, L. M. (1992). The gender earnings gap: Learning from international comparisons. American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings, 82, 533–538.Google Scholar
  10. Bloome, D. (2014). Racial inequality trends and the intergenerational persistence of income and family structure. American Sociological Review, 79, 1196–1225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bollinger, C. R. (1998). Measurement error in the Current Population Survey: A nonparametric look. Journal of Labor Economics, 16, 576–594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bollinger, C. R., & Hirsch, B. T. (2006). Match bias from earnings imputation in the Current Population Survey: The case of imperfect matching. Journal of Labor Economics, 24, 483–519.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bound, J., Brown, C., & Mathiowetz, N. (2001). Measurement error in survey data. In J. J. Heckman & E. Leamer (Eds.), Handbook of econometrics (Vol. 5, pp. 3705–3843). Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Elsevier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bound, J., & Freeman, R. B. (1992). What went wrong? The erosion of relative earnings and employment among young black men in the 1980s. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 107, 201–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bowen, W. G., & Rudenstine, N. L. (1992). In pursuit of the PhD (1st ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Budig, M. J. (2003). Are women’s employment and fertility histories interdependent? An examination of causal order using event history analysis. Social Science Research, 32, 376–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Budig, M. J., & England, P. (2001). The wage penalty for motherhood. American Sociological Review, 66, 204–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Cappelli, P. (1999). The new deal at work: Managing the market-driven workforce. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.Google Scholar
  19. Card, D. (2001). The effect of unions on wage inequality in the U.S. labor market. ILR Review, 54, 296–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Cellini, S. R., & Turner, N. (2016). Gainfully employed? Assessing the employment and earnings of for-profit college students using administrative data (NBER Working Paper No. 22287). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  21. Chandra, A. (2003). Is the convergence of the racial wage gap illusory? (NBER Working Paper No. 9476). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  22. Chang, M. J., Sharkness, J., Hurtado, S., & Newman, C. B. (2014). What matters in college for retaining aspiring scientists and engineers from underrepresented racial groups. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51, 555–580.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Charles, K. K., & Hurst, E. (2002). The transition to home ownership and the black-white wealth gap. Review of Economics and Statistics, 84, 281–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Charles, K. K., Hurst, E., & Notowidigdo, M. J. (2016). The masking of the decline in manufacturing employment by the housing bubble. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30(2), 179–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Chay, K. Y., Guryan, J., & Mazumder, B. (2014). Early life environment and racial inequality in education and earnings in the United States (NBER Working Paper No. 20539). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  26. Cheng, S. (2014). A life course trajectory framework for understanding the intracohort pattern of wage inequality. American Journal of Sociology, 120, 633–700.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Cherlin, A. J. (2004). The deinstitutionalization of American marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 848–861.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Couch, K., & Daly, M. C. (2002). Black-white wage inequality in the 1990s: A decade of progress. Economic Inquiry, 40, 31–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Couch, K. A., Tamborini, C. R., & Reznik, G. L. (2015). The long-term health implications of marital disruption: Divorce, work limits, and Social Security disability benefits among men. Demography, 52, 1487–1512.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Dahl, M. W., & DeLeire, T. (2008). The association between children’s earnings and fathers’ lifetime earnings: Estimates using administrative data (IRP Discussion Paper No. 1342-08). Madison, WI: Institute for Research on Poverty.Google Scholar
  31. Davies, S., & Guppy, N. (1997). Fields of study, college selectivity, and student inequalities in higher education. Social Forces, 75, 1417–1438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. DiPrete, T. A., & Eirich, G. M. (2006). Cumulative advantage as a mechanism for inequality: A review of theoretical and empirical developments. Annual Review of Sociology, 32, 271–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Donohue, J. J. III, & Heckman, J. (1991). Continuous versus episodic change: The impact of civil rights policy on the economic status of blacks. Journal of Economic Literature, 29, 1603–1643.Google Scholar
  34. Duncan, G. J., & Hill, D. H. (1985). An investigation of the extent and consequences of measurement error in labor-economic survey data. Journal of Labor Economics, 3, 508–532.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Elder, G. H., Jr. (Ed.). (1985). Life course dynamics: Trajectories and transitions 1968–1980. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Farley, R. (1996). The new American reality: Who we are, how we got here, where we are going. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  37. Fischer, C. S., & Hout, M. (2006). Century of difference: How America changed in the last one hundred years. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  38. Fryer, R. (2011). Racial inequality in the 21st century: The declining significance of discrimination. Handbook of Labor Economics, 4, 855–971.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Gerber, T. P., & Cheung, S. Y. (2008). Horizontal stratification in postsecondary education: Forms, explanations, and implications. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 299–318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Glenn, E. N. (2004). Unequal freedom: How race and gender shaped American citizenship and labor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Goldin, C., & Mitchell, J. (2017). The new life cycle of women’s employment: Disappearing humps, sagging middles, expanding tops. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(1), 161–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Gottschalk, P., & Huynh, M. (2010). Are earnings inequality and mobility overstated? The impact of nonclassical measurement error. Review of Economics and Statistics, 92, 302–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Grodsky, E., & Pager, D. (2001). The structure of disadvantage: Individual and occupational determinants of the black-white wage gap. American Sociological Review, 66, 542–567.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Heckman, J. J., & LaFontaine, P. A. (2010). The American high school graduation rate: Trends and levels. Review of Economics and Statistics, 92, 244–262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Hirsch, B. T., & Schumacher, E. J. (2004). Match bias in wage gap estimates due to earnings imputation. Journal of Labor Economics, 22, 689–722.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Holzer, H. J. (2001). Racial differences in labor market outcomes among men. In N. J. Smelser, W. J. Wilson, & F. Mitchell (Eds.), America becoming: Racial trends and their consequences (Vol. II, pp. 98–123). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  47. Hurst, M. (1997). The determinants of earnings differentials for indigenous Americans: Human capital, location, or discrimination? Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance, 37, 787–807.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Iceland, J., & Wilkes, R. (2006). Does socioeconomic status matter? Race, class, and residential segregation. Social Problems, 53, 248–273.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Juhn, C., Murphy, K. M., & Pierce, B. (1993). Wage inequality and the rise in returns to skill. Journal of Political Economy, 101, 410–442.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Kalleberg, A. L. (2009). Precarious work, insecure workers: Employment relations in transition. American Sociological Review, 74, 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Kaufman, R. L. (1986). The impact of industrial and occupational structure on black-white employment allocation. American Sociological Review, 51, 310–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Kim, C. (2010). Decomposing the change in the wage gap between white and black men over time, 1980–2005: An extension of the Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition method. Sociological Methods & Research, 38, 619–651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Kim, C., & Sakamoto, A. (2010). Assessing the consequences of declining unionization and public-sector employment: A density-function decomposition of rising inequality from 1983 to 2005. Work and Occupations, 37, 119–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Kim, C., & Tamborini, C. R. (2014). Response error in earnings: An analysis of the survey of income and program participation matched with administrative data. Sociological Methods & Research, 43, 39–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Kim, C., Tamborini, C. R., & Sakamoto, A. (2015). Field of study in college and lifetime earnings in the United States. Sociology of Education, 88, 320–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Kristal, T. (2013). The capitalist machine: Computerization, workers’ power, and the decline in labor’s share within U.S. industries. American Sociological Review, 78, 361–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Lee, D. S. (1999). Wage inequality in the United States during the 1980s: Rising dispersion or falling minimum wage? Quarterly Journal of Economics, 114, 977–1023.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Lee, J. (2002). Racial and ethnic achievement gap trends: Reversing the progress toward equity? Educational Researcher, 31(1), 3–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Manduca, R. (2018). Income inequality and the persistence of racial economic disparities. Sociological Science, 5, 182–205. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Mare, R. D., & Winship, C. (1984). The paradox of lessening racial inequality and joblessness among black youth: Enrollment, enlistment, and employment, 1964–1981. American Sociological Review, 49, 39–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Massey, D. S., & Denton, N. A. (1993). American apartheid: Segregation and the making of the underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Mazumder, B. (2005). Fortunate sons: New estimates of intergenerational mobility in the United States using Social Security earnings data. Review of Economics and Statistics, 87, 235–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. McLanahan, S. (2004). Diverging destinies: How children are faring under the second demographic transition. Demography, 41, 607–627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Mishel, L. (2013). Declining value of the federal minimum wage is a major factor driving inequality (Issue Brief No. 351). Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.Google Scholar
  65. Moore, C., & Shulock, N. (2010). Divided we fail: Improving completion and closing racial gaps in California’s community colleges (Institute for Higher Education Leadership Policy Report). Sacramento: California State University’s Institute for Higher Education Leadership Policy.Google Scholar
  66. Morris, M., & Western, B. (1999). Inequality in earnings at the close of the twentieth century. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, 623–657.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Mouw, T., & Kalleberg, A. L. (2010). Occupations and the structure of wage inequality in the United States, 1980s to 2000s. American Sociological Review, 75, 402–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Neal, D., & Rick, A. (2014). The prison boom and the lack of black progress since Smith and Welch (NBER Working Paper No. 20283). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  69. Newman, K. S. (2006). Chutes and ladders: Navigating the low-wage labor market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  70. Owens, A., Reardon, S. F., & Jencks, C. (2016). Income segregation between schools and school districts. American Educational Research Journal, 53, 1159–1197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Piketty, T., & Saez, E. (2003). Income inequality in the United States, 1913–1998. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118, 1–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Rankin, B. H., & Quane, J. M. (2000). Neighborhood poverty and the social isolation of inner-city African American families. Social Forces, 79, 139–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Raudenbush, S. W., & Bryk, A. S. (2002). Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods (Vol. 1, 2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  74. Reardon, S. F., & Bischoff, K. (2011). Income inequality and income segregation. American Journal of Sociology, 116, 1092–1153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Rosenfeld, J., & Kleykamp, M. (2012). Organized labor and racial wage inequality in the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 117, 1460–1502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Ryan, C. L., & Bauman, K. (2016). Educational attainment in the United States: 2015. Population characteristics (Report No. P20-578). Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau.Google Scholar
  77. Sakamoto, A., Tamborini, C. R., & Kim, C. (2018). Long-term earnings differentials between African American and white men by educational level. Population Research and Policy Review, 37, 91–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Sampson, R. J., Morenoff, J. D., & Gannon-Rowley, T. (2002). Assessing “neighborhood effects”: Social processes and new directions in research. Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 443–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Semyonov, M., & Lewin-Epstein, N. (2009). The declining racial earnings’ gap in United States: Multi-level analysis of males’ earnings, 1960–2000. Social Science Research, 38, 296–311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Smith, J. P., & Welch, F. R. (1989). Black economic progress after Myrdal. Journal of Economic Literature, 27, 519–564.Google Scholar
  81. Sum, A., Khatiwada, I., McLaughlin, J., & Palma, S. (2011). No country for young men: Deteriorating labor market prospects for low-skilled men in the United States. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 635, 24–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Tomaskovic-Devey, D. (1993). Gender & racial inequality at work: The sources and consequences of job segregation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.Google Scholar
  83. Tomaskovic-Devey, D., Thomas, M., & Johnson, K. (2005). Race and the accumulation of human capital across the career: A theoretical model and fixed-effects application. American Journal of Sociology, 111, 58–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Trejo, S. J. (1997). Why do Mexican Americans earn low wages? Journal of Political Economy, 105, 1235–1268.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016). Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2015 (BLS Report No. 1062). Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Division of Information and Marketing Services.Google Scholar
  86. Villarreal, A., & Tamborini, C. R. (2018). Immigrants’ economic assimilation: Evidence from longitudinal earnings records. American Sociological Review, 83, 686–715.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Western, B. (2002). The impact of incarceration on wage mobility and inequality. American Sociological Review, 67, 526–546.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Western, B., Bloome, D., Sosnaud, B., & Tach, L. (2012). Economic insecurity and social stratification. Annual Review of Sociology, 38, 341–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Western, B., & Pettit, B. (2005). Black-white wage inequality, employment rates, and incarceration. American Journal of Sociology, 111, 553–578.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Western, B., & Rosenfeld, J. (2011). Unions, norms, and the rise in U.S. wage inequality. American Sociological Review, 76, 513–537.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Wilson, V., & Rodgers, W. M., III. (2016). Black-white wage gaps expand with rising wage inequality (Report). Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.Google Scholar
  92. Wilson, W. J. (1987). The truly disadvantaged: The inner city, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  93. Wilson, W. J. (1996). When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. New York, NY: Knopf.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Xie, Y., Fang, M., & Shauman, K. (2015). STEM education. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, 331–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Zeng, Z., & Xie, Y. (2004). Asian-Americans’ earnings disadvantage reexamined: The role of place of education. American Journal of Sociology, 109, 1075–1108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Population Association of America 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Siwei Cheng
    • 1
    Email author
  • Christopher R. Tamborini
    • 2
    • 3
  • ChangHwan Kim
    • 4
  • Arthur Sakamoto
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Sociology at New York UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Office of Research, Evaluation, and StatisticsU.S. Social Security AdministrationWashingtonUSA
  3. 3.Maryland Population Research CenterUniversity of Maryland–College ParkCollege ParkUSA
  4. 4.Department of SociologyUniversity of KansasLawrenceUSA
  5. 5.Department of SociologyTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA

Personalised recommendations