Using a representative longitudinal survey of U.S. households, we find that household income became noticeably more volatile between the early 1970s and the late 2000s despite the moderation seen in aggregate economic activity during this period. We estimate that the standard deviation of percent changes in household income rose about 30 percent between 1971 and 2008. This widening in the distribution of percent changes was concentrated in the tails. The share of households experiencing a 50 percent plunge in income over a two-year period climbed from about 7 percent in the early 1970s to more than 12 percent in the early 2000s before retreating to 10 percent in the run-up to the Great Recession. Households’ labor earnings and transfer payments have both become more volatile over time. As best we can tell, the rise in the volatility of men’s earnings appears to owe both to greater volatility in earnings per hour and in hours worked.
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