Inequality Convergence across US Labor Markets, 1939-2017

Tom VanHeuvelen, University of Minnesota

What is the nature of long-run inequality change in the subnational United States? Scholars have recently noted the divergence that has occurred between more affluent labor markets—San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Seattle, for example—and poorer, more rural ones—Liberty, KY, and Independence, IA, for example. While the pulling apart of labor markets in terms of their levels of economic development has been well documented, less in known about the degree to which economic inequality is becoming more or less similar across local areas. While social scientists have examined how the “inequality of inequality” has converged across countries over the recent period of industrialization and post-industrialism, little is known how similar processes have developed across the heterogeneous labor markets that make up the Untied States. In the current research, I construct a unique dataset by sorting census and American Community Survey data between years 1940 and 2017 into 722 local labor markets, commuting zones, that are consistently defined over time. I then apply two methodological logics of convergence testing commonly used in cross-national research, sigma divergence and beta divergence. Preliminary results indicate that although median household income, a proxy for economic development, has diverged across labor markets since the 1980s, inequality has experienced a striking convergence over time. Political, economic, and demographic explanations are used to explain these contrasting results. The long run historical scope that is used in this project, using inequality measurements covering the entire era of a consistent definition of the labor force, allows for a fuller contextualization of contemporary changes in subnational inequality.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 141. Inequality, Segregation, Mobility