## Wives’ share of couple income update

This is an update of previous reports with some new analysis at the end.

In my book Enduring Bonds I showed the distribution of income within different-sex married couples from 1970 to 2014. Here is the updated trend to 2017:

The change from 2014 is a modest continuation. Here’s the detail from 2017, with the couples reporting exactly-even incomes broken out in the middle:

In 2017, for different-sex couples with wife age 18-64:

• 26% of wives earn more than their husbands (up from 15% in 1990 and 7% in 1970).
• The average wife-who-earns-more takes home 69% of the couple’s earnings. The average for higher-earning husbands is 79%.
• It is 8.3-times more common for a husband to earn all the money than a wife (18.7% versus 2.3%).

In the book I offer the following summary:

Actually, this triplet pattern fits a lot of trends regarding gender inequality: yes, lots of change, but most of it decades ago, and not quite as fundamental as it looks.

New breakdown

At the request of Stephanie Coontz, I ran the 2017 numbers by income bracket (and including all ages).  I broke the couples into the bottom 10% (under \$27,000), the 10-25th percentile (to \$47,000), the 25th-5th (to \$80,000), the 50th-75th (to \$130,000), the 75th-90th (to \$202,000), and the top 10% (\$202,000+). Here is the income distribution within couples for each income bracket, with a few points labeled for clarity:

A key point here is that although wives rarely earn the dominant share of income, most couples rely on the wife’s income to maintain their standard of living. For example, a couple at the median, \$80,000, would have to drastically alter their lifestyle without the 40-49% share contributed by the wife’s income. Breadwinning in its 1950s connotation is is distracting from this contemporary reality, and we should probably drop the term.

## 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.

The other day when the Pew report on mothers who are breadwinners came out, I complained about calling wives “breadwinners” if they earn \$1 more than their husbands:

A wife who earns \$1 more than her husband for one year is not the “breadwinner” of the family. That’s not what made “traditional” men the breadwinners of their families — that image is of a long-term pattern in which the husband/father earns all or almost all of the money, which implies a more entrenched economic domination.

To elaborate a little, there are two issues here. One is empirical: today’s female breadwinners are much less economically dominant than the classical male breadwinner – and even than the contemporary male breadwinner, as I will show. And second, conceptually breadwinner not a majority-share concept determined by a fixed percentage of income, but an ideologically specific construction of family provision.

Let’s go back to the Pew data setup: heterogamously married couples with children under age 18 in the year 2011 (from Census data provided by IPUMS). In 23% of those couples the wife’s personal income is greater than her husband’s — that’s the big news, since it’s an increase from 4% half a century ago. This, to the Pew authors and media everywhere, makes her the “primary breadwinner,” or, in shortened form (as in their title), “breadwinner moms.” (That’s completely reasonable with single mothers, by the way; I’m just working on the married-couple side of the issue — just a short chasm away.)

The 50%+1 standard conceals that these male “breadwinners” are winning a greater share of the bread than are their female counterparts. Specifically, the average father-earning-more-than-his-wife earns 81% of the couple’s income; the average mother-earning-more-than-her-husband earns 69% of the couple’s income. Here is the distribution in more detail:

This shows that by far the most common situation for a female “breadwinner” is to be earning between 50% and 60% of the couple’s income — the case for 38% of such women. For the father “breadwinners,” though, the most common situation — for 28% of them — is to be earning all of the income, a situation that is three-times more common than the reverse.

Collapsing data into categories is essential for understanding the world. But putting these two groups into the same category and speaking as if they are equal is misleading.

This is especially problematic, I think, because of the historical connotation of the term breadwinner. The term dates back to 1821, says the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s from the heyday of America’s separate spheres ideology, which elevated to reverential status the woman-home/man-work ideal. Breadwinners in that Industrial Revolution era were not defined by earning 1% more than their wives. They earned all of the money, ideally (meaning, if their earnings were sufficient), but just as importantly they were the only one permanently working for pay outside the home. (JSTOR has references going back to the 1860s which confirm this usage.)

Modifying “breadwinner” with “primary” is better than not, but that subtlety has been completely lost in the media coverage. Consider these headlines from a Google news search just now:

Further down there are some references to “primary breadwinners,” but that’s rare.

Maybe we should call those 100%ers breadwinners, and call the ones closer to 50% breadsharers.

## More married mothers earn more than their husbands

For this Washington Post article by Brigid Schulte, I did some calculations that allowed her to add, “In a trend accelerated by the recent recession” to the first sentence. When you line up the numbers this way — percentage of married mothers with children present who have higher incomes their husbands — there was a steep acceleration:

Source: My calculation from Census and American Community Survey data from IPUMS.

My explanation for this was:

“The decade of the 2000s witnessed the most rapid change in the percentage of married mothers earning more than their husbands of any decade since 1960,” said Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist who studies gender and family trends. “This reflects the larger job losses experienced by men at the beginning of the Great Recession. Also, some women decided to work more hours or seek better jobs in response to their husbands’ job loss, potential loss or declining wages.”

The trend was reported by Pew Research in this report, titled “Breadwinner Moms,” which wrote:

A record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The share was just 11% in 1960.

I just did the married mothers earning more, and added the data from the years between 2000 and 2011, to show the recession-period acceleration of the higher-earning mothers. Pew added polling numbers about attitudes toward women’s income, and Schulte added exemplary interviews.