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date: 05 December 2020

Human Capital Inequality: Empirical Evidencelocked

  • Brant AbbottBrant AbbottDepartment of Economics, Queen's University
  •  and Giovanni GallipoliGiovanni GallipoliVancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia


This article focuses on the distribution of human capital and its implications for the accrual of economic resources to individuals and households. Human capital inequality can be thought of as measuring disparity in the ownership of labor factors of production, which are usually compensated in the form of wage income.

Earnings inequality is tightly related to human capital inequality. However, it only measures disparity in payments to labor rather than dispersion in the market value of the underlying stocks of human capital. Hence, measures of earnings dispersion provide a partial and incomplete view of the underlying distribution of productive skills and of the income generated by way of them.

Despite its shortcomings, a fairly common way to gauge the distributional implications of human capital inequality is to examine the distribution of labor income. While it is not always obvious what accounts for returns to human capital, an established approach in the empirical literature is to decompose measured earnings into permanent and transitory components.

A second approach focuses on the lifetime present value of earnings. Lifetime earnings are, by definition, an ex post measure only observable at the end of an individual’s working lifetime. One limitation of this approach is that it assigns a value based on one of the many possible realizations of human capital returns. Arguably, this ignores the option value associated with alternative, but unobserved, potential earning paths that may be valuable ex ante. Hence, ex post lifetime earnings reflect both the genuine value of human capital and the impact of the particular realization of unpredictable shocks (luck).

A different but related measure focuses on the ex ante value of expected lifetime earnings, which differs from ex post (realized) lifetime earnings insofar as they account for the value of yet-to-be-realized payoffs along different potential earning paths. Ex ante expectations reflect how much an individual reasonably anticipates earning over the rest of their life based on their current stock of human capital, averaging over possible realizations of luck and other income shifters that may arise. The discounted value of different potential paths of future earnings can be computed using risk-less or state-dependent discount factors.

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