Opting out and Buying Out: Wives' Earnings and Housework Time

By Killewald, Alexandra | Journal of Marriage and Family, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Opting out and Buying Out: Wives' Earnings and Housework Time


Killewald, Alexandra, Journal of Marriage and Family


It has been proposed that the negative association between wives' earnings and their time in housework is due to greater outsourcing of household labor by households with high-earning wives, but this hypothesis has not been tested directly. In a sample of dual-earner married couples in the Consumption and Activities Mail Survey of the Health and Retirement Study (N = 796), use of market substitutes for women's housework was found to be only weakly associated with wives' time cooking and cleaning. Furthermore, expenditures on market substitutes explain less than 15% of the earnings - housework time relationship. This suggests that use of market substitutes plays a smaller role in explaining variation in wives' time in household labor than has previously been hypothesized.

Key Words: families in middle and later life, Health and Retirement Study (HRS), housework/division of labor, time use, wives' employment.

Wives continue to spend more time than their husbands doing housework, even when both spouses work full time (Kamo, 1988; Killewald & Gough, 2010). For those couples, domestic labor is a source of gender stratification, as it contributes to unequal leisure time between spouses. Furthermore, wives' time in housework is negatively associated with wages, thus making women's greater domestic burden a contributor to the gender gap in wages (Hersch & Stratton, 1997; Noonan, 2001).

It is therefore natural to ask what resources wives may use to reduce their time in household labor. Existing studies indicate that wives' earnings are negatively associated with their time in housework, even after controlling for time spent in market work (Gupta, 2006, 2007; Killewald & Gough, 2010). Given that wives' earnings are positively associated with household expenditures on market substitutes for their household labor and negatively associated with their time in housework, it has been hypothesized that wives' earnings allow them to outsource household production (Cohen, 1998; de Ruijter, Treas, & Cohen, 2005; Gupta, 2006, 2007; Gupta & Ash, 2008): Wives use their earnings to buy out of time in housework. Nevertheless, the explanatory power of the buying-out hypothesis has, to my knowledge, never been directly tested. An alternative cause of the negative earnings -housework relationship is that higher earnings lead wives to reduce their household labor hours, without purchasing a market substitute for their own time. In other words, high earners opt out by doing less housework.

Testing the buying-out hypothesis has been difficult because most data sets do not include information on both housework time and household expenditures. Brines (1994), using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), found that expenditure on dining out relative to food consumed at home was negatively associated with wives' time in housework, but the PSID lacks data on expenditures on other types of market substitutes for housework. By linking time use and expenditure measures from the Consumption and Activities Mail Survey (CAMS) to earnings measures from its parent study, the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), I directly measured the extent to which use of market substitutes is associated with wives' time in household labor. Furthermore, by comparing the results of models of wives' housework time before and after the inclusion of a measure of use of market substitutes, I measured the extent to which the expenditures explain the negative relationship between wives' earnings and their housework time.

Understanding whether wives' earnings lessen the time they spend in household labor primarily by increasing spending on market substitutes has implications for understanding the intersection between household responsibilities and market work. Acknowledging that wives may not fully compensate for their reduced housework time by increased use of market substitutes introduces a new parameter into the household decision-making model: the level of household production. …

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