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In The Papers: Inequality, Long Hours And Gifted Education


Every Monday, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit organization made up of some of North America’s most respected economists, releases its latest batch of working papers. The papers aren’t peer-reviewed, so their conclusions are preliminary (and occasionally flat-out wrong). But they offer an early peek into some of the research that will shape economic thinking in the years ahead. Here are a few of this week’s most interesting papers:


Title: “It’s Where You Work: Increases in Earnings Dispersion across Establishments and Individuals in the U.S.”

Authors: Erling Barth, Alex Bryson, James C. Davis, Richard Freeman

What they found: Widening U.S. income inequality has occurred mostly between companies rather than within them.

Why it matters: The debate over rising income inequality in the U.S. often focuses on the widening gap in pay between CEOs and ordinary workers. But using data from several different sources, the authors of this paper find that inequality within companies has been less important than inequality between them. That is, the gap between high-paying employers and low-paying employers has grown more than the gap between high- and low-paid workers within individual companies (or, technically, “establishments,” meaning individual locations). This is true both within industries and between them. Significantly, the widening pay gap between companies was true even for workers who didn’t change jobs, suggesting the trend wasn’t just the result of top workers moving to better-paying employers.

Key quote: “The huge role of establishment factors in the trend rise in inequality documented in this study is a signpost to pay attention to the places where people work as well as to their skills in studies of inequality.”

Data they used: Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement, the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Business Survey and the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics program.


Title: “Long Workweeks and Strange Hours”

Authors: Daniel S. Hamermesh, Elena Stancanelli

What they found: Americans not only work longer hours than Europeans, they are also much more likely to work nights and weekends.

Why it matters: Nearly one in three American workers does at least some work on the weekends, compared to 1 in 5 in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Even more strikingly, 1 in 4 U.S. workers reports working at night (after 10), twice as many as in Germany and nearly four times as many as in France or the Netherlands. (The British are more likely to work nights and weekends than their continental neighbors but less likely than Americans.) The disparity is partly due to Americans’ working more hours overall and partly due to demographic differences. But most of the explanation, the authors conclude, “appears to result from differences in the way that work is structured in America.”

Key quote: “Whether these fundamental differences result indirectly from some unique characteristics of American and European culture or directly from their expression or absence of expression through legislation or institutions is unclear. … Whatever the explanations for the higher incidence of work at night and weekends in the U.S. than in Europe, its consequences may be quite dramatic in terms of fewer interactions with others and possibly worse health outcomes for Americans than Europeans.”

Data they used: The American Time Use Survey and similar data from five other countries


Title: “Does Gifted Education Work? For Which Students?”

Authors: David Card, Laura Giuliano

What they found: Elementary school gifted-and-talented programs are most effective when students are selected based on high test scores rather than high IQ. Low-income and minority students experienced particularly large gains.

Why it matters: School districts have been offering programs for talented students for decades. But there have been relatively few studies of the success of these efforts and even less research into the relative effectiveness of different types of programs. In this paper, the authors focus on a single large school district that admitted three different types of students to its fourth- and fifth-grade gifted program: students who scored at least 130 points on an IQ test, low-income and English-language-learner students with IQs over 116, and students who didn’t have exceptional IQs but who scored highly on standardized tests the prior year. The authors find that the gifted program had little impact on the first two groups of students, those chosen based on IQ. But the third group of students, those with normal IQs but high test scores, experienced significant gains in reading and math scores, with low-income and minority students enjoying a particularly big boost.

Key quote: “Overall, we conclude that a separate gifted classroom environment can be highly effective in raising the standardized test scores of students selected on the basis of past achievement, particularly disadvantaged and minority students who would normally not qualify for gifted education programs that use an absolute admission standard. Our findings suggest that a comprehensive tracking program that establishes a separate classroom in every school for the top-performing students could significantly boost the performance of the most talented students in even the poorest neighborhoods, at little or no cost to other students or the District’s budget.”

Data they used: Administrative data from an unidentified large U.S. school district

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.