Why male and female ‘breadwinners’ aren’t equivalent (in one chart)

Here’s a quick addition to some old posts on breadwinners (here and here).

Nowadays, women are much more likely to earn more income than their husbands do. But this is a shift, not a revolution, because very very few women are the kind of breadwinner that men used to be.

Using data on 18-64 year-old married wives (and their husbands*) from Decennial Censuses and the 2014 American Community Survey (via IPUMS.org), here are some facts from 2014:

  • In 2014, 25% of wives earn more than their spouses (up from 15% in 1990 and 7% in 1970).
  • The average wife-who-earns-more takes home 68% of the couple’s earnings. The average for higher-earning husbands is 82%.
  • In 40% of the wife-earns-more couples, she earns less than 60% of the total, compared with 18% for husbands.
  • It is almost 9-times more common for a husband to earn all the money than a wife (19.6% versus 2.3%).

Here is the distribution of income in married couples (wife ages 18-64; the bars add to 100%):


Male and female breadwinners are not equivalent; making $.01 more than your spouse doesn’t make you a 1950s breadwinner, or the “primary earner” of the family. (Also, you might call a single mother a breadwinner or primary earner, but not if you’re describing trends from a gender-equality perspective.)

* I forgot that in 0.5% of the 2014 cases the wife’s spouse is also a woman, so it would be more accurate to replace “husband” with “spouse” in the facts that follow.

10 thoughts on “Why male and female ‘breadwinners’ aren’t equivalent (in one chart)

  1. Interesting- BLS (http://www.bls.gov/cps/wives-earn-more.htm) estimates are quite a bit higher, based on CPS ASEC, 38% of wives in 2014 earned more than husbands (when all couples are included, whether husband has earnings or not), and in 28% of couples were both work. I can’t really think of a reason for ACS/Census and ASEC coming up with such a different estimate- both are annual earnings and should include bonuses, etc. Any suggestions?


    1. A few differences. My age range was 18 to 64 for wives. They are using earnings while I used total income. They restricted to couples in which the wife had earnings, or both had earnings, while I had no restrictions as long as someone had positive income.


  2. Thanks for sharing this. Pew reported in 2014 for couples where the wife earned more than the husband, that these couples total income was higher than for couples where the husband’s income was higher. Did you find this as well?


  3. I’d be more worried about the husband grossly using the wife for all of her hard-earned money (Ie: Never offering to buy any appliances for the house, etc., despite the fact that he works, too!).


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