Economics

Equal Marriages Go Along With More Equal Pay

Working women boost household incomes. But some Americans, especially low-income men, have had trouble adapting.

That's a start.

Photographer: Joe Raedle/getty images

A friend recently asked me whether women's entry into the workforce has been good for men. I couldn't give him a clear answer, because it's a complicated question. Overall, the answer is yes, but the change hasn't been equally good for all men. Those who have successfully adapted their family structure and social norms to the new economic realities have done very well and will continue to do so. But those who haven't managed to make the necessary adjustments have suffered, and will probably continue to suffer unless something is done.

Women haven't achieved full economic equality, and may never do so, but much of the gender gap closed in the late 20th centuries. Here's a picture of the difference between the labor force participation rates of men and women in the U.S.:

The Shrinking Gender Gap

Percentage difference in labor force participation rates, men and women.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

And here's a picture of how the wage gap has narrowed:

Closing in on Equal Pay

Difference in weekly real earnings for full-time workers, men vs women.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

This represents a dramatic, epochal change in society. Why did it happen? Changing social norms and the feminist movement probably played a role, but an even more powerful force was technology. Advances in the automation of housework -- the washing machine, the dishwasher, the vacuum cleaner and so on -- meant that it just doesn't make economic sense to have a large share of the population working as full-time housekeepers. At the same time, the shift from agriculture and manufacturing to a service economy means that most jobs are now not as physically taxing and dangerous as before, putting men and women on a more level playing field.

If economic well-being was just about gross domestic product, then this would be unambiguously good for everyone. The boom in women's labor force participation came just in time to counter the slowdown in productivity that began in the early 1970s. Countries such as Japan, which were slower to boost women's labor force participation until much more recently, failed to close the economic gap with the U.S.

And for two-income families, women's entry into the formal economy has been an unambiguous plus. In a recent report, Washington Center for Equitable Growth researchers Heather Boushey and Kavya Vaghul show that working women help bolster families' economic security. The reason is pretty obvious -- two incomes means more money. It also limits risk, since with two incomes, the loss of one earners' job doesn't immediately send family income to zero. And having a working spouse allows you to take the risk of quitting your job to start a business.

Single mothers also obviously need to work to feed their kids, so the improvement in women's economic position makes it easier for them to avoid the welfare rolls. But single parents fare much worse, economically, than two-earner families. And single parenthood has been increasing for low-income Americans:

The Prosperity-Marriage Connection

Source: Brookings Institution

What's causing this shift? Some blame pop-culture-induced decadence. But a bigger problem is probably the persistence of old gender norms. Women are reluctant to marry men who don't have secure, well-paying jobs and men are reluctant to marry women who make more than them.

New research by top economists shows just how powerful this social pressure can be. In a paper entitled "When Work Disappears: Manufacturing Decline and the Falling Marriage-Market Value of Men," economists David Autor, David Dorn and Gordon Hanson show that in areas where men lost manufacturing jobs to international competition, single motherhood rose sharply. The obvious explanation is that for many years, manufacturing jobs paid a wage premium to low-skilled men. With those jobs gone, and inequality increasing, men in the lower part of the income distribution are no longer as desirable as spouses.

That doesn't mean the economic case for marriage disappears as one goes down the income ladder. If anything, marriage is more important for lower-earners, since these people tend to have less savings and greater risk of being laid off. So the trend away from marriage is hurting the working class.

If this negative pattern is going to be reversed, gender norms will have to change. Men must no longer base their self-esteem on being sole breadwinners, and women must learn to be comfortable with husbands who earn less than they do.

This change in gender roles is underway in the upper and middle classes. As Brookings researcher Richard Reeves has has demonstrated, higher earners are far less likely to say that men should be the sole breadwinner of the family. It's only among the working-class and poor where the traditional expectation still dominates.

The new, gender-equal economy is therefore working great for middle- and upper-class Americans who are willing to embrace a cooperative, gender-neutral view of marriage and work. But for working-class people still holding to the old social roles, the effect has been more ambiguous. The solution isn't to restrict women's economic opportunity -- that would hurt the economy, devastate single mothers and make life harder for Americans of all classes. Instead, the way forward is to accelerate the shift toward a universal view of marriage as a cooperative, equal partnership. That cultural shift will be difficult for some, but doing nothing will be even more painful.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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