There is an income split in the American work force that no amount of Congressional legislation is likely to close. Attempts to do so, such as through minimum wage legislation, conceivably could even worsen it.
The problem is illustrated by a deadly set of statistics compiled at the University of Michigan showing the relationship between education and income, but it is not the only way in which the widening split is demonstrated.The Michigan study shows inflation-adjusted incomes for high school dropouts actually fell from 1984 to 1994, while workers with college degrees or better rose. In fact, the biggest rise of all, 13 percent, was among workers with more than a college degree.
This is the age of technology, which places a premium on expertise. On, for example, an engineering degree with a master's in business administration. As a rule, but with notable exceptions, the greater the education, the higher the income.
It is the age of information too, and those with the greatest or most specific information generally can look forward to good jobs. It is an entrepreneurial age too, both within established corporations and among the very smallest companies.
It is a world of swift change as well. Companies never could sit back and enjoy their success because eventually they would be overtaken. But today, as opposed to a few decades ago, they can be overtaken in a matter of weeks or months rather than years.
Change demands adaptation, and without question those with the best educational bases are those who can make the changes. For them, education is a lifelong pursuit, whether they work for a large company or a tiny business run out of a home office.
In such a society, the high school dropout must first fight for a job, and then fight to keep it, and the fight is a lifelong fight - and usually a losing one. Lacking a good base, the uneducated worker receives meager raises and slips farther and father behind.
And it could get worse in spite of legislated increases in the minimum wage. Think-tank studies suggest that minimum-wage increases are followed in the next year by a decline in beginner-job creations. Potential employers simply remove the bottom rung on the ladder.
The Michigan study shows that the head of household with less than a high school diploma earned $20,291 in 1984 but only $17,918 in 1994. These are comparable figures - each of the years is stated in 1996 dollars so that they can be measured against each other.
Even those with a high school diploma earned less in 1994 than in 1984. The figures, based on 7,000 interviews in 1984 and more than 10,000 in 1994. In the earlier year they earned $34,569; in the latter year, $31,648.
The study suggests that even those with some college education are losing their income momentum. In 1984, this category of household head earned $41,794, and only $366 more a decade later.
The deadliest evidence of all is revealed by figures for those household heads with more than a college degree. They earned $56,798 in 1984, but $64,294 in 1994. And, while the Michigan study does not say so, the gap may have widened since then.