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

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; A02

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.

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.

"For so many years, marriage has been a way for women to enhance their economic status," said D'Vera Cohn, co-author of the Pew report. "Now, increasingly it's a way for men to enjoy economic gains as well."

The trends reflect both the advances that women have made and setbacks experienced by men, with the decline of manufacturing and other male-dominated jobs, experts said.

Only 4 percent of male high-school graduates had a wife who brought in more income in 1970. Now 24 percent do. Similarly, only 4 percent of men with "some college" brought in less income than their wives. Now 23 percent do. For men with college diplomas, 3 percent had wives contributing more to the household in 1970, and now 18 percent do.

"As women have brought more money into the marriage, their authority and decision-making power has grown," said Cherlin, author of "The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today." "But it's not that women are calling the shots. It's that husbands and wives are sharing the decision-making power."

The report noted differences by race. Black wives have a stronger history in the workforce and were more likely to be better educated than their husbands in 1970. In 2007, one third of black wives were better-educated than their spouses, higher than for the population overall. Among college educated black husbands, 26 percent have wives who make more than they do. For those with less education, the proportion of wives who outearn them is greater.

The authors did not present results for Asian and Hispanic spouses.

Marriage itself is in some decline, the report showed. In 1970, 84 percent of the 30- to 44-year-old group was married. Now it is 60 percent. Black marriage rates were lower, with 62 percent of African American women married in 1970, a number that declined to 33 percent in 2007.

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