Hanna Rosin reality check, part whatever

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Hanna Rosin’s cover story is adapted from her forthcoming book The End of Men. The question posed on the cover is, “Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?” (Spoiler alert: it’s men).

The article profiles married-couple families with unemployed or underemployed men depending on the incomes of wives working in the new economy. Her handful of anecdotes are accompanied by ominous images like this (her triumphant and resolved, him a shell of his former self):

NYT photo by Ann Weathersby

The anecdotes are fascinating and well told, but they are also grossly overplayed. In one interview, she reports:

When I talked with Patsy in the family room at their house, she forbade Reuben to come downstairs, because he can sometimes dominate conversations. She quarantined him on the second floor, and I caught glimpses of him carrying a basket of laundry.

For Rosin, all this points to a “nascent middle-class matriarchy” in which “It’s not hard to imagine a time when the prevailing dynamic in town might be female bosses shutting men out of the only open jobs.”

But is it too much to first imagine the way things actually are?

The families she profiles live a short drive from Auburn, Alabama. Auburn, she reports, is “a reflection of the modern, feminized economy: a combination of university, service and government jobs.” It is “an especially good place for women,” where “young, single, childless women in their 20s working full time have a higher median income than equivalent young men.” (On this grotesquely contorted statistic, also anchoring Liza Mundy’s book, see this post.)

But the couples in her story – where the women are wearing the pants – aren’t young, single, and childless. So, what is happening with real married couples? Auburn makes up about half the population of Lee County. So I took a look at the roughly 25,000 married couples in that county sampled by the American Community Survey in the years 2006-2010, restricted to those in which the wife is in the age range 20-54.

For each wife, I asked what percentage of the family’s total income comes from her earnings. Here is the distribution of wives’ earnings share:

In this county, wives earn 50% or more of all family income in 20.4% of families, compared with 19.5% in the country overall. In 32% of families the wife earns less than 10% of family income, a little less than the 35% average for the country. But: In 1% of married-couple families the wife earns all the money. The future is now. Look out!

This isn’t the whole story of the “nascent middle-class matriarchy.” But debunking The End of Men is a multi-post process (here’s the most recent), leading up to a presentation I’ll give (among many others) for a conference at Boston University in October.