Research Says Lighter Skin = Higher Pay

January 29, 2007 ( - A new study suggests that lighter-skinned workers make more money, regardless of race.

Joni Hersch, a law and economics professor at Vanderbilt University, looked at a government survey of 2,084 legal immigrants to the United States from around the world and found that those with the lightest skin earned an average of 8% to 15% more than similar immigrants with much darker skin, according to the Associated Press.

“On average, being one shade lighter has about the same effect as having an additional year of education,” Hersch said, according to the report.

Hersch used data from 2,084 men and women who participated in the 2003 New Immigrant Survey. An interviewer reported the person’s skin color using an 11-point scale where 0 represented the absence of color and 10 represented the darkest possible skin color.

Other Factors

Hersch said she considered various explanations for skin color’s effect on wages, such as discrimination in country of birth, the possibility that darker skin color is caused by outdoor work, which is lower paying, and interviewer bias. After ruling out those explanations, Hersch concluded that discrimination is the strongest explanation for why lighter and taller immigrants make more money. She said the effect of skin color even persisted among workers with the same ethnicity, race, and country of origin. Hersch’s research also found height played a part in salary.

That’s right-the study also found that taller immigrants earn more than shorter ones, with an extra inch of height associated with a 1% increase in income.

Hersch said her analysis shows that the skin-color advantage was not due to preferential treatment for light-skinned people in their country of origin. The bias, she said, occurs in the U.S.

Hersch’s findings will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science next month in San Francisco.

An earlier paper by Hersch also dealt with the issue of skin-tone and its effect on education and employment -“Skin Tone Effects among African Americans: Perceptions and Reality,” American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings 96(2), May 2006, 251-255 .