This thing about wives as breadwinnners

Here it is again: Susan Gregory Thomas writing in the Wall Street Journal, starts with:

I’m one of the 40% of American women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who are the breadwinners for their families—that is, we earn more than our husbands.

Really? No. I don’t know why this keeps going around.

First, let’s set aside that “40% of American women” is not the same thing as 40% of American wives, since about half of women are single. Anyway, the Census Bureau publishes this in a table every year for all married couples (homogamous couples excluded, of course). Here it is, color coded, from 2011:

Source: Table FG3 on this page.

Even if you give half of the “within $5,000″ couples to wives, they would still outearn husbands in only 33% of couples — and I’m not sure that’s a reasonable assumption.

This 40% thing might come from Liza Mundy, who wrote in Time that, in 2009, “nearly 4 in 10 working wives outearned their husbands.” Note: working wives. Lots aren’t. The figure here includes all couples, as Thomas said it in her intro.

I last reported this for the 2009 data. And a Pew report put the number of wives outearning husbands in 2007 at 22%. The facts do change a little now and then, but the details remain only vaguely relevant to some writers and editors.

(No offense to Gregory — I enjoyed the first half of her memoir on divorce, In Spite of Everything, which I just plugged for free.)

8 Comments

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8 responses to “This thing about wives as breadwinnners

  1. Andy

    This is precisely why I read this blog. You find a question that can be easily answered using simple, publicly-available data, but that has previously been answered incorrectly by someone else. Then you answer it. Nice work. There are still large disparities in income within families.

    It might also be interesting to see whether the likelihood of the wife earning more than the husband is related to the household income level. That is, are wives more likely to out-earn husbands in low-income families (probably)? High-income families (less likely)?

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  2. Thank you, Andy. Last I heard, wife-earning-more couples were much more common among poor households. Which means those wives are often relatively low earners themselves.

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  3. Sarah

    I would be very interested in seeing this for couples where both people work. I think that the fact that the majority of the time the woman is the one who takes time off for kids can really skew the data. I do know out of the couples I know where both work, it is usually pretty even, and among my friends actually skews towards the women earning more.

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  6. caryatis

    Maybe Gregory Thomas is confusing a statistic about 40% of women who are breadwinners for their families (including married and single women) with 40% of married women?

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