Economists at GSU say that families are better off when wives make more than husbands.
Photo: Dani Simmonds
Photo: Dani Simmonds

GSU study: Families better off when wives make more than husbands

Families do better when a wife makes more money than her husband, even though there is still a widespread social preference for it to be the other way around, according to a study by Georgia State economists. 

When a wife makes more, she is more likely to get more generous raises than her spouse, probably because the incomes in industries where women tend to work are growing more robustly, they told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

And when the wife makes more, the family ends up making choices in leisure time. Those choices show up in the data in things like hours worked, so those choices can be measured, they said.

The calculations by Julie Hotchkiss and Robert Moore, along with co-authors Fernando Rios-Avila and Melissa Trussell, used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to assess the effect of economic changes in the 1990s and 2000s. 

The finding seems to track the economy, said the authors.

In most traditional families, husbands make more than wives, although the balance has been shifting. The share of families with wives earning more than husbands has been growing. 

In 1994, 16 percent of wives made more than husbands. By 2003, that share had grown to 18 percent and by 2012, 21 percent – more than one in five – wives earned more, according to data from the Bureau of labor Statistics.

After 2000, the advantage of wives having larger paychecks seemed to grow.

That may be partly an effect of the Great Recession, which – on average – was a little harsher for industries dominated by men, the economists said. The result was that even the husbands who continued to make more than their wives were not really doing that well.

“The smaller welfare gains among these families could derive from the husband not realizing his full potential in the labor market or from suffering larger wage declines than his wife,” said economist Julie Hotchkiss. 

Since women poured into the workforce by the millions during the 1970s, the number of two-paycheck families has soared. And with social changes – same sex or single-part households – the share of families with a wife and husband has been shrinking.

 The study did not include same sex couples. 

But among traditional, husband-wife families, there is still an attachment to the idea that a man should be the prime breadwinner.

Interestingly, there’s a sharp fall in the share of families just at the point where wives make more, said Robert Moore, one of the authors. “This ‘cliff’ shows there’s still a strong social preference for husband/wife pairs in which husbands earn more than their wives.”  

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