Do Affluent Countries Face an Incomes-Jobs Tradeoff?

Lane Kenworthy
Content Type
Working Paper
Institute for European Studies at Cornell University
A commonly-held view suggests that affluent nations face a tradeoff between incomes and jobs. According to this view, in the United States pay for workers at the bottom of the earnings distribution (relative to those in the middle) is very low and government unemployment-related benefits (the "replacement rate") are stingy, but this facilitates the creation of lots of new jobs and encourages such individuals to take those jobs. The result is a high rate of employment and low unemployment. In much of Western Europe relative pay levels are higher for those at the bottom and benefits are more generous, but this is said to discourage job creation and to reduce the willingness of the unemployed to accept low-wage jobs. The consequence is low employment and high unemployment. I undertake a comparative assessment of this tradeoff view, based on pooled cross-section time-series analyses of 14 OECD countries in the 1980s and 1990s. The findings suggest that greater pay equality and a higher replacement rate do reduce employment growth in low-productivity private-sector service industries and in the economy as a whole. However, these effects are relatively weak. The results point to a variety of viable options for countries wishing to maintain or move toward a desirable combination of jobs and equality.
Political Geography
United States, Europe