Between 13 and 20 percent of wives out-earn their husbands, according to recent Saint Louis University research.
“We had become so used to the Leave It to Beaver household, and not all households fit into that,” said Timothy McBride, Ph.D., director of health policy at Saint Louis University School of Public Health and a study author.
Researchers had noticed years ago that some women were out-earning their husbands. However, McBride said, the researchers had speculated that the phenomenon was a seasonal and temporary one –- such as teachers taking the summer off or construction workers who could not work because of inclement weather.
“We found it was more permanent than that. About 60 percent of the time, women who out-earned men did so for at least the three-year period we studied,” McBride said.
In some of the families, the chief breadwinners were ‘superstar’ women who have high-paying jobs –- families where both spouses are attorneys or physicians, for instance, McBride said. Family economics is a matter of choice.
Other families where women earn more than men typically are part of the working poor, he said.
“It’s that lower group that we’re more concerned about. Both parts of the couple aren’t doing very well, and the woman just happens to be doing better than the man,” McBride said.
“That could be because he has health problems or isn’t well-linked to the labor force. A significant portion of these men -– 25 percent — were not in the labor force because of health issues.”
The research is descriptive and opens up other questions about these couples and their situations. For example, previous research has found a higher incidence of domestic violence among lower income families with women out-earning men, McBride says.
“You can’t characterize the phenomenon by saying it’s all these superstar women doing really well. It’s a mixed bag and more persistent than we thought,” he says.
“The research raises interesting questions in non-traditional households at both end of the economic spectrum about how you’d allocate household work, such as childcare and cleaning.”
The researchers examined U.S. Census Bureau data gathered between 1996 and 2000 that included a sample of nearly 4,000 families. The study examined couples that remained married throughout the three-year study period and were of prime earning age –- between 25 and 54. Findings appeared in the August issue of Demography.
Anne Winkler, Ph.D., an economist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was the lead author of the study, and Courtney Andrews, senior research assistant from Saint Louis University, was a study co-author.
From Saint Louis University