The Faltering Escalator of Urban Opportunity

Peer-reviewed Publication

David Autor

July 2020

Since 1980, college-educated workers have been steadily moving into affluent cities while non-college workers have been moving out. One likely reason is that employment and earnings opportunities in urban labor markets for non-college workers (defined as workers without a bachelor’s degree) have substantially deteriorated over the past three decades. As U.S. employment has “polarized” into high-education, high-wage occupations and low-education, low-wage occupations, non-college urban workers have been increasingly shunted out of blue-collar production jobs and white-collar office and administrative jobs into low-paid services, such as food service, cleaning, security, transportation, maintenance, and health aide positions. Simultaneously, the formerly robust urban wage premium paid to non-college workers has eroded. Urban occupational polarization and wage declines are far more pronounced among Hispanic and Black workers than among Whites, and most severe among Black males. Thus, for the majority of non-college workers — but especially for minorities – U.S. cities no longer appear to offer the escalator of skills acquisition and high earnings that they provided in earlier decades