Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

How Dual Are Dual-Income Couples? Documenting Change from 1970 to 2001

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

How Dual Are Dual-Income Couples? Documenting Change from 1970 to 2001

Article excerpt

Using Current Population Survey data for 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2001 (N = 73,001), we document change in the prevalence of couples where (a) the wife contributes less than 40% of the family income, (b) income contributions are relatively equal, and (c) the wife's income contribution surpasses her husband's contribution. In 1970, close to 90% of couples had conventional earning arrangements: The husband was the sole provider in 56% of couples and contributed 60% or more of the income in an additional 31% of couples. By 2001, husbands were still the sole (25%) or major provider (39%) in a majority (64%) of couples but wives shared equally in providing income in 24% of couples, more than double the 9% in 1970. Additionally, wives as primary (or sole) earners increased from 4% to 12%. We investigate the associations between income provisioning within dual-income families and ongoing cohort replacement by younger couples, women's increased human capital, life course processes, couple's labor supply, and race. Our findings suggest that wives' increased human capital and couple's labor supply were strongly associated with increased female breadwinning patterns, but age cohort replacement processes and life stage factors also played a role in explaining change over time.

Key Words: breadwinning, dual-earning, labor force participation.

In the stereotypical nuclear family of mid-20th century America, husbands specialized primarily in breadwinning, whereas wives focused on maintaining the household and caring for children. This was less true in working class and minority families than in White and middle-class two-parent families, but husband sole breadwinning was widespread. For example, in 1960, near the end of the Baby Boom, 65% of White wives did not contribute earnings to their households but neither did 50% of Black wives (Bianchi, 1981). This pattern changed rapidly after 1970.

Over the past 30 years, married women's employment rates increased dramatically (Cohen & Bianchi, 1999; Winkler, 1998), although gender differences in market and domestic work persist (Becker & Moen, 1999; Deutsch, 1999; Waite & Gallagher, 2000). This is particularly evident in couples with children: Fathers spend more hours in paid work and mothers spend more hours in housework and child care (Bond, Galinsky, & Swanberg, 1998; Deutsch). Debate continues over how much the gender allocation of time to paid employment and family responsibilities has actually changed. Are the days when men specialized in market work and women specialized in the domestic sphere largely gone, or are we just reconfiguring the boundaries of (continued) gender-specialized roles in families?

Moen and Sweet (2003) argue that although women are more often contributing income to families, a wife's economic contribution remains secondary to that of her husband across the life course. Further, her labor force opportunities are often of lower priority than her husband's. Thus, the change in families has not been a movement from complete specialization in either the domestic or economic sphere to egalitarian breadwinning. Instead, most couples are neotraditional with wives who do some market work but continue to adapt their careers to accommodate their husbands' labor market opportunities and family responsibilities.

Nock (2001), in contrast, argues that couples are moving swiftly in the direction of equally shared breadwinning. He coins the term "MEDS," which stands for marriages of equally dependent spouses, or marriages where each spouse contributes 40%-59% of the family income. Nock notes that this movement toward mutual economic dependency is actually a return to the past. Historically, husbands and wives were heavily dependent on each other to co-manage a farm or run small family businesses. Only at mid-20th century did couples get off track with highly differentiated family roles. Unique economic circumstances bolstered sole wage earning on the part of husbands, allowing men to earn a family wage (Levy, 1998). …

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