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More wives are the higher-income spouse, Pew report says

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By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In a trend that researchers call "the rise of wives," women are increasingly better-educated than their husbands and have emerged as the dominant income-provider in one of five marriages, according to a new report released today.

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Looking at the impact of nearly four decades of social change, the report shows that men increasingly get a significant economic boost when they tie the knot -- improving their household incomes and often pairing up with a partner who has at least as much education as they do. Compared to 1970, when men usually married women with less education and fewer wives worked, these changes have contributed to a "gender role reversal in the gains from marriage," the report said.

"What's radically changed is that marriage now is a better deal for men," said Richard Fry, co-author of the report, published by the Pew Research Center. "Now when men marry, often their spouse works quite a bit. Often she is better-educated than the guy." In 1970, unmarried men "had a higher economic status than married guys," he said, "but no longer."

Researchers brought together data from the U.S. Census Bureau to probe how income and education played out in married life for U.S.-born spouses ages 30 to 44, an age group that is the first in U.S. history to include more women than men with college degrees.

The report found that in more than half of these married couples, spouses have nearly equal levels of education. The wife is better-educated in 28 percent of marriages, while in 19 percent the husband has more education.

Men are still the major contributors of household income -- with 78 percent making at least as much or more than their wives -- but the percentage of women whose income has outpaced their husband's has more than quadrupled, jumping from just 4 percent in 1970 to 22 percent now.

"We've seen a historical shift in the marriage bargain since the mid-20th century," said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who has studied marriage extensively. "The old bargain was that the husband earned the money and the wife took care of the home. The new bargain is that both work, and they pool their incomes."

The economic recession has accelerated the trend. The report cited labor statistics showing men lost three-quarters of jobs for prime working-age individuals in 2008. Women have not lost jobs at the same rate and "are shouldering more economic responsibilities for their families than ever before," said sociologist Kathleen Gerson, author of "The Unfinished Revolution: How a New Generation Is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America."

"The economic crisis has made something visible that's been building for a long time," she said.

Men still out-earn women, but the gap is narrowing. In 2007, full-year women workers had median earnings of about $33,000, which was 71 percent of men's median earnings of about $46,000. Back in 1970, women's earnings were 52 percent of men's.

At one time, men might have been embarrassed to be outearned by their spouses, Cherlin said, but now "more and more husbands are pleased to have the income a wife brings in."

The economic changes come during a period of great strides in education for women. Among college-educated men, 71 percent now have college-educated wives, compared to 37 percent in 1970, the report said. Most married men did not have a working spouse in 1970. Now most do.


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