One of Twenty Facts About U.S. Inequality that Everyone Should Know

Wage Inequality

Over the last 30 years, wage inequality in the United States has increased substantially, with the overall level of inequality now approaching the extreme level that prevailed prior to the Great Depression. This general characterization of the inequality trend oversimplifies, though, the actual pattern of change: The chart below shows that the trend at the top of the income distribution (the “upper tail”) is not exactly the same as the trend at the bottom of the distribution (the “lower tail”). “Lower-tail” inequality is measured here by taking the ratio of wages at the middle of the income distribution (i.e., the 50th percentile) to those near the bottom of the distribution (i.e., the 10th percentile); “upper-tail” inequality is measured by taking the ratio of wages near the top of the distribution (i.e., the 90th percentile) to those at the middle of the distribution (i.e., the 50th percentile of workers). We find that lower-tail inequality rose sharply in the 1980s and contracted somewhat thereafter, while upper-tail inequality has increased steadily since 1980.

Men's wage inequality

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Source: Economic Policy Institute. 2011. “Upper Tail” inequality growing steadily: Men's wage inequality, 1973-2009. Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute. May 11, 2011. <>.