As Mens Wages Drop, Wives Pick Up Slack

By Kilborn, Peter T. | THE JOURNAL RECORD, April 9, 1994 | Go to article overview

As Mens Wages Drop, Wives Pick Up Slack


Kilborn, Peter T., THE JOURNAL RECORD


KANSAS CITY, Mo. _ Women who once went to work to buy the extras for their families are paying for more and more of the basics, piling job upon job as their husbands' earnings fall.

About 15 million working wives hold well-paid executive or professional jobs, anchoring their families to the middle or upper classes. But far more _ 37 million _ are working for lower wages as clerks and cashiers, nurses' aides and bank tellers, secretaries and maids. Their wages serve as a cushion between welfare and getting by.

For the most part, it is the wives and mothers among this huge population of lower-paid women whose husbands' wages have fallen the most and who are becoming the new bulwarks of the family economy. These women take full-time jobs and then go to school to qualify for better ones. Others combine two or more jobs.

Two decades ago, six men for every one woman held more than one job. As of the end of February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, almost 47 percent of the nation's 7 million multiple jobholders were women. Just over half of these women stack a part-time job on top of a full-time job or hold full-time jobs.

"The men are feeling desperate and barely hanging on," said Karen Nussbaum, director of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau. "Women are more likely to have a practical response: `How do I just get through this?' They go from a secretarial job to a night job at Kmart."

Christine Gibbs is typical. Twenty-nine years old and the mother of a 3-year-old girl, she works 19 hours a week at the drive-up window of a shopping center bank during "peak time" afternoon hours.

Peak-time workers make from $8.50 to $12 an hour, but the bank doesn't provide health benefits or pay wages for an eight-hour day. Then on Saturdays, for $200 a month, she cleans the bathrooms and offices of another bank.

When she began working three years ago, her husband, David, now 30, seemed to have a promising future as an auditor of passenger tickets at Trans World Airlines. So the couple built a three-bedroom house for $80,000 in a subdivision about 25 miles north of downtown and bought a second car.

Since then, Gibbs has survived round upon round of dismissals at TWA. He took a 10 percent pay cut last year, and rumors fly daily of yet more dismissals and another cut.

While their annual income, slightly less than $40,000, is still above average for the region, the couple are in debt and know their situation is precarious.

For decades, workers like Gibbs raised the family income. But in inflation-adjusted dollars, the rise in the median family income peaked in 1989 at $38,710. By the end of 1992, the latest year for which the government has figures, it had slipped to $36,812. …

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