Although the picture of the typical American married couple as breadwinner husband and stay-at-home wife has long since faded into history, men are still regarded as the primary earners in households. Indeed, survey data reveal that even in marriages where both partners work full-time, women on average still earn only about 70% as much as their spouses.
Averages, however, can be deceiving. What may have escaped notice, observes economist Anne E. Winkler of the University of Missouri at St. Louis in a recent study, is that the gap between male and female earnings in many marriages is relatively small. In a growing number of cases, in fact, wives now bring home more of the bacon than their husbands.
It's hardly news, of course, that most married women work. Since 1966, the percentage of wives in the labor force has risen from 35% to 62%--and 75% if only those under 65 are counted. Census data indicate that dual-income couples last year hit 30.5 million, far outpacing the 11.4 million marriages in which only the husband worked.
Meanwhile, the gap between male and female wages has been shrinking--because of falling real earnings among poorly educated men and generally rising earnings among women. Indeed, adjusting for the difference in women's education, experience, and occupations, economists Francine Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn of Cornell University have estimated that hourly wages of female full-time workers came to 88% of male wages by the end of the 1980s.
A measure of the degree to which such trends may be affecting gender roles within marriage, says Winkler, is the rising share of dual-income couples in which wives earn more than their husbands. Back in 1981, that fraction was just 16%. But by early 1993, she reports, it had risen to 25.2%. Moreover, close to 10% of wives in this group were earning at least 50% more in hourly wages than their spouses (chart), and 20% had greater annual earnings.
Winkler's analysis of working couples indicates that close to 60% of men with low pay (in the lowest fifth of the male earnings distribution) had wives whose pay exceeded their own, compared with only 7% of men in the top fifth of earnings. Further, 2.8 million women were the sole wage earners in instances where only one spouse worked.
Looking at total incomes in dual-earner families, Winkler estimates that wives accounted for the lion's share of earnings in 16% of families in the top fifth of the income scale. In fact, there were almost as many high-earning wives paired with low-earning husbands as high-earning husbands with low-earning wives.