Earnings of Husbands and Wives in Dual-Earner Families

By Winkler, Anne E. | Monthly Labor Review, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Earnings of Husbands and Wives in Dual-Earner Families


Winkler, Anne E., Monthly Labor Review


As married women have become increasingly likely to work in recent decades, their contribution to family earnings has grown as well--indeed, in 20 to 25 percent of dual-earner couples, wives earn more than their husbands; these trends may have affected family decisionmaking, giving some women more input into family financial and career decisions

As has been well documented, labor force participation rates among married women have increased dramatically in recent decades, rising from 35 percent in 1966 to 61 percent in 1994. The increase was even more dramatic for married women with children under 3 years: 21 percent to 60 percent over the same period. As a result, dual-earner couples are swiftly replacing the traditional married-couple model of a "breadwinner" husband and "homemaker" wife. From 1970 to 1993, the proportion of dual-earner couples increased from 39 percent to 61 percent of all married couples.(1) Moreover, recent work by Chinhui Juhn and Kevin M. Murphy suggests that wives are entering the work force largely in response to women's rising labor market opportunities, rather than due to declining opportunities for their spouses.(2)

As the number of dual-earner couples rises, new questions are raised about gender roles within marriages. In the past, it was reasonable to assume that the husband's career was primary and took precedence over the wife's career. However, since the 1980s, failing real earnings for men combined with rising labor force participation and real earnings for women probably have affected decisionmaking within some married-couple families. Data from the Current Population Survey (cps) show that the proportion of dual-earner couples in which wives earned more than their husbands increased from 16 percent in 1981 to 23 percent in 1996.(3) The figures suggest the presence of a growing number of married couples in which traditional gender roles vis-a-vis labor market activity may be reversed--that is, the wife is the primary earner and the husband is the secondary earner. As further evidence of the changing roles of husbands and wives in the family, research by Francine Blau indicates that the amount of time spent by women doing housework has declined since the 1970s, although women continue to spend considerably more time than men doing such work.(4)

Because the distribution of earnings within dual-earner families may affect household decisionmaking as well as labor market decisions, this article seeks to gauge the relative economic positions of husbands and wives in these families, as defined by their paid labor market activity. Data on matched pairs of husbands and wives are drawn from the March 1993 Annual Demographic File of the Current Population Survey. The analysis complements and expands upon previous work by Howard Hayghe on the contribution to family income made by working wives.(5) Particular attention is paid here to quantifying the number of "nontraditional dual-earner couples," or those in which the wife is the primary earner and the husband is the secondary earner. In addition, the article examines the joint distribution of husbands' and wives' educational attainment and wages to highlight the implications of marital sorting on relative wage outcomes, as well as to ascertain the percentage of low-wage men married to high-wage women. The latter figure provides further evidence of the presence and extent of nontraditional couples.

Why look at spouses' relative earnings?

Examining the relative labor market earnings of husbands and wives provides insight into the status of women within dual-earner families. At least in some families, the greater the wife's relative earnings, the more control she is likely to have over family financial decisions. In the language of bargaining models of the family, as the relative income of wives rises, so does their "threat point"--the level of utility they would attain if they left the marriage--and thus also their bargaining power within the marriage. …

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