New Data Shows Wide Income Gap Within Some Professions

Melissa Block talks to Adam Davidson about growing income inequality at every level of our economy. Davidson has been pouring over data recently released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Over the last few years, the word inequality has become synonymous with the phrase the 1 percent. And it's true that by many measures the top 1 percent of income earners in America have received the vast majority of economic growth over the past 30 years. But that masks another crucial aspect of inequality. There is growing inequality at every level of our economy.

Adam Davidson with NPR's Planet Money team has been poring over data recently released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And he joins us now to talk about it. Adam, what are these numbers you're looking at? And what are they showing you?

ADAM DAVIDSON, BYLINE: Well, twice a year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases this fascinating dataset. And actually, listeners can play along at home. All you do is search in Google BLS, OES, that's for Occupational Employment Statistics, and then the name of a profession. And what you get is a report about how much the people in that profession make and crucially the range of income. So it'll show you what the bottom 10 percent of earners make, the top 10 percent of earners and what the average person in that field makes.

So, for example, this morning I searched BLS, OES, bricklayers. And I learned that there are 50,000 some-odd bricklayers and blocklayers, which I didn't even know is a profession, and that high-paid bricklayers and blocklayers make four times as much as the low-paid ones do. It's about 80,000 to 20,000 or so.

And when I go back in time using the BLS website, I see that 10 years ago the ratio was closer to 3-to-1. So the ratio between the highest paid and the lowest paid has been growing steadily. I saw the same thing with actuaries, with embalmers, people who embalm bodies at funeral homes. I saw it with dental surgeons, with low-paid dental surgeons making far less than high-paid ones. I saw it particularly strikingly with journalists. And throughout, I saw the same trend. The top 10 percent make roughly four times as much as the bottom 10 percent.

BLOCK: And that gap, as you say, has been expanding over time. Do you find that surprising? I mean, there would always be, we'd expect to find, obviously more successful and less successful people in any field you look at.

DAVIDSON: Yeah. And you would expect that older people in the field with more experience might make more than new entrants, people who just started working there. And that's all true, but that's always been true. And what we're seeing in the data is that the gap is growing dramatically almost everywhere you look. Almost every profession you look, the gap has been growing dramatically over the past 10 years. In fact, it's been growing over the past 30 years although it's been speeding up the distance between the low paid and the high paid.

BLOCK: And when you talk to economists, what do they say accounts for that? Why would that income gap within specific professions be widening, as you say it is?

DAVIDSON: There's really two words for it: technology and trade. So to think of the technology, I often picture an accountant. So the field of accountants started in Italy in the 1500s. And for hundreds of years afterwards, simply being a basic, not particularly great but just a basic accountant, someone who knew how to add sums and do, you know, double-entry bookkeeping, you had a job. People needed you. Every company needed someone like that.

But then suddenly Microsoft has Excel spreadsheet, and basic accounting is replaced by a software program. And there's very, very little value in sort of a basic-level accountant. But a high-level accountant, someone who works for Deloitte and flies around the world giving strategic advise about how to move money around the world, that person benefits 'cause the Excel spreadsheet can do all the boring stuff and they can think the big thoughts that earn the big bucks.

You see the same thing at the manufacturing level. Think of a factory in China. If you're making something very basic, assembling an iPhone or sewing a t-shirt, a factory in China can do the same basic commodity work much more cheaply, so the American factory, they replace the low-skill worker with big complicated machines, and then they hire a high-skill worker to run the machine. So the high-skill worker makes more money. The low-skill worker makes less money or loses their job altogether.

BLOCK: Well, is there an inherent problem in this widening inequality? I mean, is this necessarily something that needs fixing?

DAVIDSON: That, I think is the core political economic question of our time. I think it's going to be central to the 2016 presidential election and elections to come. You know, broadly speaking, Republicans and some centrist Democrats say this might be painful, but in the long run, it's good for economic growth. And more progressive Democrats would say this is a disaster, and it's the result of government policy.

BLOCK: That's Adam Davidson from NPR's Planet Money team. We were talking about the growing wage inequality within professions. Adam, thanks so much.

DAVIDSON: Thank you, Melissa.

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