Scales are shifting in family earnings

More wives becoming primary breadwinners, BGSU researchers find


By: Bonnie Blankinship

Things are changing in the United States when it comes to the relative earnings among family members, and not always for the better financially. The Great Recession of 2007-09 has caused some shifts in earnings among dual-earner married couples, including a marked rise in the number of wives who are earning more than their husbands.

New findings by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research (NCFMR) at Bowling Green State University show that in 65 percent of married couples, both husbands and wives are earners. In 2006, among dual earner couples, wives contributed 38 percent to the couple's total earnings on average; by 2011, that figure had risen to 40 percent - a 5 percent increase, the report shows.

In an even greater shift, BGSU researchers Dr. Krista Payne, an NCFMR social science data analyst, and Larry Gibbs, a graduate assistant in the sociology department, report a recent rise in wives out-earning their husbands among dual-earner married couples. Over the past five years, the share of dual-earner married couples in which wives are the primary breadwinners (that is, wives contribute at least 60 percent of the couple's earnings) climbed from 13 percent to 16 percent - a 23 percent increase.

For two Ohio families, the wife has always been the greater earner but the husbands feel differently about their relative status.

"These patterns speak to the shifting gender dynamics in contemporary marriages"Jerry Hazzard and his wife, Emily, have widely disparately salaries. He is a Division 2 football coach at Lake Erie College, where his earnings are comparatively low but where he is very content in his work. His wife, Emily, is an AP Spanish teacher at Orange High School, in one of Ohio's highest-paying districts.

"My buddies tease me about it nearly every day and people are often surprised by our salaries, but it doesn't bother me at all, absolutely not," Hazzard said. "For me to earn more we'd have to move and then her salary would probably go down, so for our family it just makes sense."

Conversely, traditional societal norms cause Cristine Boyd's husband to feel uncomfortable with his lower wages, despite the fact that "he is now where he's supposed to be," said Cristine, a public relations and marketing professional in higher education. After a false start in teaching, her husband switched careers to become a recording arts technology engineer - "doing what he should have been doing," she said. "It's kind of a reset for him and it's been slower for him to catch up even though he's made all the right moves over the years and loves his job.

"It bothers him a lot, and he would be happy the day he passes me in earnings," she said. "Men feel they need to provide. For me, it's a partnership so it doesn't bother me but he's sensitive to it."

The evolving wage model does not indicate greater prosperity, the BGSU study shows.

"Increasingly, wives are contributing the majority of the family's earnings. But these families aren't necessarily better off," said Payne.

Couples in which the wife is the primary breadwinner have the lowest median couple earnings. In 2011, among couples in which the wife was the primary breadwinner, median couple earnings were roughly $73,000. For those couples in which the husband earned more, median couple earnings were about $83,000. Couples in which the husband and wife contributed similar proportions of earnings had the highest median couple earnings, at about $84,800.

"Since over all, women still earn less than men, on average, it is not surprising that wives are most likely to out earn husbands with relatively modest incomes," Payne said. "It might also reflect the greater economic necessity to have wives in the labor force when husbands have small incomes (compared with other husbands). These couples need both spouses to work and contribute economically to the family."

Equality in breadwinning, where spouses contribute similar shares of earnings that within a 40-60 split, appears to maximize couples' financial well-being," Gibbs said.

"These patterns speak to the shifting gender dynamics in contemporary marriages and also provide new insights on how the Great Recession may be affecting dual earner families," said NCFMR co-director Dr. Susan Brown, a professor of sociology.

Updated: 12/02/2017 12:54AM