Purchases, Penalties, and Power: The Relationship between Earnings and Housework

By Carlson, Daniel L.; Lynch, Jamie L. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2017 | Go to article overview

Purchases, Penalties, and Power: The Relationship between Earnings and Housework


Carlson, Daniel L., Lynch, Jamie L., Journal of Marriage and Family


The surge of married women into the labor force since 1960 has dramatically altered the household division of labor in American families. Women now constitute nearly half of the adult labor force and have emerged as significant contributors to family coffers (Wang, Parker, & Taylor, 2013). This shift in family life has spawned a body of research devoted to understanding not only the determinants of the household division of labor but also its consequences for families and individuals (Becker, 1981; Budig & England, 2001; England, 2005; Hochschild & Machung, 1989; Jacobs & Gerson, 2004), with a specific focus on the relationship between spouses' time in housework and earnings derived from paid labor. Yet, despite decades of research demonstrating that personal and relative earnings are associated with housework participation (Bittman, England, Sayer, Folbre, & Matheson, 2003; Brines, 1994; Coverman, 1983; Greenstein, 2000; Gupta, 2006, 2007; Gupta, Sayer, & Cohen, 2009; Hersch, 1991, 2009; Hersch & Stratton, 1997; Shirley & Wallace, 2004; Stratton, 2001), it remains, nevertheless, unclear how earnings and housework are causally related for the married.

Explanations for the relationship between earnings and housework fall into one of two camps. On one hand, autonomy theory, along with the relative resources, gender display, and gender neutralization hypotheses, suggest that housework arrangements depend on spouses' absolute and relative earnings (Blood & Wolfe, 1960; Brines, 1994; Greenstein, 2000; Gupta, 2006, 2007). On the other hand, human capital theory suggests that time spent in housework affects one's earnings (Becker, 1985). Despite the plausibility of a mutually reinforcing and reciprocating relationship, only one study has investigated this possibility (Hersch, 1991). Instead, the vast majority of research on the earnings-housework relationship is focused on refining and expanding a single theoretical perspective, typically using single-direction, single-equation models (e.g., ordinary least squares [OlS] regression) and cross-sectional data that, although often recognized by researchers as a limitation, tend to reinforce a single-direction causal relationship explanation.

This study examines the housework-earnings relationship by relaxing assumptions of relational and causal unidirectionality, employing structural equation models that can identify a reciprocal relationship. For comparability with past research on housework and earnings, we use data from the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), an older survey with high-quality measures. Results indicated a reciprocal relationship between housework and absolute personal earnings for wives but only a unidirectional effect of housework on absolute personal earnings for husbands. For both husbands and wives, we found little evidence of an effect of relative earnings on their housework performance. Rather, it is housework performance that affects their relative earnings.

BACKGROUND

The Effect of Personal and Relative Earnings on Housework Performance

Although numerous factors including spouses' gender ideologies, time availability, parental status, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status affect their performance in and sharing of household labor (Coltrane, 2000), spouses' relative and absolute earnings have received particular attention for their effect on housework arrangements, especially arrangements of routine housework-cooking, cleaning, laundry-that are conventionally the responsibility of women. The relative resources hypothesis (also called the economic dependence or bargaining hypothesis) argues that couples determine who is responsible for housework by bargaining with one another-a process in which the spouse with the most resources (i.e., income, occupational prestige, education) is able to negotiate out of housework and pass this responsibility onto the spouse. Proponents of this hypothesis use this reasoning to explain wives' historically greater hours and larger share of routine housework when compared with their husbands' share of routine housework (Blood & Wolfe, 1960; Brines, 1994; Ross, 1987). …

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