Wives in dual-earner couples are contributing more to total household income than in the past, and a growing percentage of wives are out-earning their husbands, shows a new analysis of family finances from 2006 to 2011.
In 2011, the percentage of households with married couples earning two incomes fell, compared with 2006, and those with a single earner rose, according to a report published online Thursday by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
The analysis of Census data from the American Community Survey suggests some of the Great Recession's fallout on family finances. Couples in which both partners are employed declined from 69% to 65%, while those with one breadwinner rose from 27% to 30%, it says.
However, experts not involved in the research say this dip in dual-earning couples doesn't mean a return to a time when most men worked and most married women did not.
"It's hard to imagine that many families can cut back to single earners," says UCLA sociologist Suzanne Bianchi. "In the middle-income distribution, it takes two incomes. I would also think the recession may have made people a little more risk-averse."
Jerry Jacobs, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, notes that "job security isn't what it used to be. More and more couples are realizing that two earners help to provide insurance against the economic ups and downs."
Wives in dual-earner couples are contributing a greater share of the couple's total earnings, 40% in 2011, up from 38% in 2006. And, more wives in 2011 were out-earning their husbands. The report considers wives to earn more than husbands if they contribute at least 60% of the couple's earnings. In that five-year period, the percentage of wives earning a greater share of income increased from 13% to 16% of married couples.
"Some of that has to do with the fact that men lose their jobs or are rehired into less well-paying jobs. It's not that women are earning more in an absolute sense but earning more because their mates are earning less," says historian Alice Kessler-Harris of Columbia University in New York.
The analysis doesn't include reasons for the changes, says report co-author Krista Payne. "We don't know whether the husband had a pay cut," she says. "We don't know what the actual husband's pay was."
Also, Jacobs says, it's important to remember that each partner's earnings fluctuate over time. "Let's say she got a bonus this year or he lost his bonus this year. Next year, there's a really good chance it will revert back."
Among single-earners, the data analysis does not specify which partner was the single-earner or reasons for single-earner status, which could include job loss, leaving the workforce to care for a child or leaving because child care was too costly.
The report also finds that incomes of two-income married couples declined slightly, from $79,206 in 2006 to $79,100 in 2011.
The highest median incomes for couples, approximately $84,800, were for those where both partners had similar earnings. When the husband was the primary breadwinner, the median earnings were about $83,000. In couples where the wife earned more, median earnings were the lowest, approximately $73,000.
"The proportion of couples where the wife earns more did increase over the five-year period, but that's not translated into economic gains for the couple," Payne says.
Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY