More wives make more

The Pew Research Center put together some trends from Census data in a new report, which is getting covered by the NYTimes and others. The underlying facts for the last four decades are:

    1. Women’s earnings have risen faster, as their employment rates and hours have increased
    2. Women’s education level has risen faster, with more women than men now completing college
    3. Marriage rates have fallen slower – and divorce rates have fallen slower – for those with college degrees, so the married population is increasingly more educated than singles.

The result of all that is more married couples in which wives earn as much or more than their husbands.

The greater earnings of married women, and tendency of higher earners to marry each other, has also increased inequality between married and unmarried people – as we’ve seen before, for example with health insurance. The Pew report calculates income adjusted for household size, and shows that married people are in higher income households now:

One could conclude from this that things have gotten better for the average married man – his household income has gone up more than his individual income. (In fact, the wage premium that married men get has slipped.) That’s where you get this:

Things are sweeter than ever for the recliner kings of America’s four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath castles. Contemporary American husbands are working less, going to school less, living longer and are reaping the benefits of wives who are bringing home the big bucks more than any of their dapper “Mad Men” counterparts of the 1960s.

To keep this transformation in perspective, please note that only 22% of wives earn more than their husbands. A change, but maybe not a sea change? Also don’t forget that the wives who were not “working” were really just not getting paid for their work. I’ve tried to make the case that the movement from unpaid to paid work for women is a job shift – and a crucial one, since it changes the form of the underlying relationships.

It’s not clear how to assess the benefits – or losses – that men derive from all this. That recliner-king image assumes that employed wives still do the unpaid work of the household, but the best predictor of how much housework a woman does may be her own income.

That’s why I don’t buy this:

“When you think about it from a guy’s perspective, marriage wasn’t such a great deal,” says Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center. “It raised a household size, but it didn’t bring in a lot more income.”

What about the value of all that work the stay-at-home wife did? Maybe it was more inefficient, but the report also shows with survey data on decision-making, wives get more say-so when they earn more – the price a “recliner king” pays, willingly or not.

10 thoughts on “More wives make more

  1. Thanks for giving an informed take on this. The New York Times, God love them and their pending paywall, did not have so much good information in their piece.


  2. “3. Marriage rates have fallen faster – and divorce rates have fallen slower – for those with college degrees, so the married population is increasingly more educated than singles.”

    I don’t think that’s right… If marriage rates fall faster, all else equal, the number of college educated married couples will go DOWN (because less of them marry), leaving the marriage pool less educated. Looking at page 5 of the actual report might clear this up: “Marriage Declines Most among Those Without a College Degree.” So, it should be: marriage rates have fallen slower and divorce rates have fallen slower for college grads vs. those without a college degree, then the marriage pool will be more educated….

    Otherwise, thank you for calling out the discrepancy between married and unmarried! And I am so happy that I wasn’t the only one pointing out that the data needs to be adjusted for labor force participation. I also think it should be adjusted for the wage gap between men’s and women’s incomes.

    (I also posted this comment at HuffPo. Feel free to delete it here or there if you don’t like duplicates…)


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