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Working wives' contributions to family incomes.

In today's typical married-couple family a wife's earnings make up a sizable portion of the family's income. Even wives who are not year-round full-time employees generally make meaningful contributions to their families' annual money incomes.

This report describes how working wives' contributions to their families' incomes vary by characteristics such as the number of weeks they work annually, their husbands' earner status, and the presence and age of children in the family.(1) Differences by race and Hispanic origin and trends since 1970 also are examined. The measures in this paper are based solely on wives' labor market earnings and do not include an imputed market value for any home production of goods or services for household consumption (housework, child care, household maintenance work). The data are based on information from the March Current Population Survey.(2)

Wives' contributions

In 1991, approximately 33.5 million wives had earnings, accounting for about $3 of every $10 of their families' incomes. (Median income for married-couple families in which the wife was an earner was about $47,300.)(3) The extent of the wife's contribution varied by personal and family characteristics.

Wives' work experience. Generally, the more a wife works in a calendar year, the larger her contribution to family income is likely to be. Those who work year round full time have higher earnings than other working wives, and provide a greater share of family income.(4) For example, 54 percent of wives with earnings in 1991 worked year round full time, contributing about 41 percent of their families' incomes. By contrast, the median contribution was about 13 percent for wives who worked full time for 6 months or less. Wives who worked part time for 6 months or less - and only about 1 of 12 did so - accounted for about 4 percent of the income of their families. (See table 1.)


There is a fairly close relationship between the extent of market work performed by a wife during a calendar year and the proportion of the family's income she provides. But as the following data show, this linkage also is affected by other factors.

Husbands' earner status. About 2.5 million wives with earnings in 1991 - or 1 of 13 - were married to men who did not have earnings during the year. These wives contributed about 43 percent of their families' incomes, compared with 31 percent for wives married to men who had earnings. The reason this difference is not larger is probably because families with nonearning husbands are likely to have income from other sources, such as a pension, disability or unemployment insurance, or investments. In addition, wives in such families tend to have lower earnings than other wives, although they are about as likely to work year round full time.(5)

Presence and age of children. Slightly more than half (17.9 million) of the wives with earnings were mother with children under 18. The mothers were somewhat less likely than working wives with no children at home to be employed year round full time. Yet, the median percent contribution of each group to family income was quite similar.

A possible explanation for this similarity, despite the disparity in the extent of annual work experience, may be because wives without children are generally older than those with children. Older women tend to have higher earnings than younger women, but the difference in earnings between older women and their male counterparts is greater than the gap in earnings between the younger women and men.(6) Therefore, the earnings of wives without children are likely to be a smaller proportion of their families' total income than might be expected to result from the higher earnings of older women relative to younger women, and the higher proportion of wives without children who work year round full time.

Mothers with children under 6 and those whose youngest child was school-age contributed approximately 30 percent of family income. The reason for the similarity between these two groups of mothers is unclear, because a larger proportion of the mothers with school-age children are year-round full-time workers. A possible explanation may lie in the differences in parents' ages. Parents of school-age children are likely to be older than parents of preschoolers and, as explained earlier, older wives' contributions to family income are not much different than those of younger wives.

Race and Hispanic origin. The earnings of black wives are a particularly large component of their families' incomes. In 1991, black working wives provided nearly $4 of every $10 of such incomes, compared with about $3 of $10 for white and Hispanic working wives. The most important reason for this difference is that relatively more black wives with earnings in 1991 - approximately 64 percent - were year-round full-time workers, compared with approximately 53 percent of white wives and 51 percent of Hispanic wives.

Other factors also are influential. White husbands earned considerably more than black or Hispanic husbands, while earnings differences were much narrower among wives. As a result, the earnings of black and Hispanic wives relative to their husbands' earnings were much higher, at 83 percent and 79 percent, than were earnings for white wives at 68 percent.(7) Also, among families in which the wife was an earner in 1991, a greater proportion of the black husbands than white or Hispanic husbands had no earnings. In such families, as noted earlier, die wife contributes the major share of family income.

Poverty. Approximately 1 million, or 3 percent, of wives who had earnings in 1991 were in families with incomes below the poverty level.(8) These wives contributed about 28 percent of their families' incomes, compared with 31 percent for those not in poverty. While wives in families with below-poverty income were only about one-third as likely as other wives to work year round full time, their husbands were far less likely than those in nonpoverty families to be earners at all. Thus, the earnings of the wives in families with incomes below the poverty level - no matter how small - are likely to account for a much greater proportion of family income than in families not in poverty.

Trends, 1970-91

For families in which the wives were earners, their contributions to family income grew by a modest 4 percentage points - from 27 percent to 31 percent - between 1970 and 1991.(9) This increase occurred entirely in the 1980's, as more wives entered the ranks of year-round full-time workers. During the 1970's, the proportion who worked year round full time remained fairly constant, as did their contribution to family income. (See table 3.)


These increases occurred in the 1980's, rather than throughout the 20-year period partly because of changing demographic trends, particularly marriage and childbearing. In the 1980's, women were older when they married for the first time. In 1970, for example, the average, or median, age of women marrying for the first time was 21 years. By 1988, it was 24 years.(10) Because of this marriage delay, wives who gave birth in the 1980's were, on average, older than those who gave birth in the 1970's. Therefore, the median age of the mothers of children born to married couples, which was 25 years in 1970, advanced to 28 by 1989.(11) This "aging" of mothers also has had the effect of limiting the number of children they can ever bear by decreasing the number of their remaining fertile years. In addition, having fewer children reduces the burden of childcare and increases the time available for market work before and during childrearing years.(12)

An important nondemographic factor in the rise in year-round full-time work among wives was their ongoing shift to managerial and professional specialty occupations. Workers in these occupational groups are more likely to work year round full time than those in many of the job categories in which women have traditionally found employment, such as the sales and administrative support (clerical) categories. In the early 1970's, 17 percent of employed women were in managerial or professional specialty occupations. By 1980, the proportion had risen to 20 percent, and by 1991, to 27 percent.

Race. During the 1970's, the trend in contributions by white wives to their families' incomes mirrored the overall pattern, remaining at approximately 26 percent. But over the same period, the share of black wives' earnings grew slightly to 34 percent. During the 1980's, contributions by both groups to family income increased; by 1991, the proportion reached 31 percent for white wives and 38 percent for black wives.

Differences in the proportions of wives who worked year round full time between whites and blacks are the basis for the dissimilar trends in wives' contributions. Historically, black wives have been more likely than their white counterparts to work year round full time. Between 1970 and 1980, this difference widened as the proportion of black wives who worked full time all year grew rapidly, while the proportion of white wives who worked full time year round was little changed. In contrast, during the 1980's, the percent who were year-round full-time workers rose dramatically for both groups.

Wives who |outearn' their husbands

About 9 million wives, or 29 percent of the total in married-couple families in which both spouses worked, earned more than their spouses in 1991. For the most part, their husbands' earnings were relatively low; the median was about $7,600. (See table 4.) Overall, three-fourths of the wives were married to men who earned less than $20,000 in 1991.


As might be expected, wives who were year-round full-time workers were even more likely to have higher earnings than their spouses; some 37 percent did so. Black wives were more likely than white or Hispanic wives to earn more than their husbands.

Since 1987, the first year for which these data were tabulated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics," the number of wives earning more than their husbands has grown by more than 1 million, and their proportion has risen from a little less than 26 percent to 29 percent in 1991.


(1) The notion of contribution to family income assumes that earnings and other income of each family member are aggregated into a single fund and spent as is mutually agreeable. How many families conform to this paradigm is unknown, because many other arrangements are possible. (2) The Current Population Survey, or CPS, is a monthly, nationwide sample survey of households. Currently, the sample includes approximately 60,000 households. The survey collects information regarding the employment status of each household member 16 years and older. Additional questions are asked each March concerning the work experience and incomes of household members in the previous calendar year. For more information on the CPS, see BLS Handbook of Methods, Bulletin 2414 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1992). (3) Income includes wages and salaries (including tips, commissions, and bonuses), and self-employment income. Also included is unearned income from interest, dividends, rents, royalties, and government transfer payments. (4) In 1989, for example, wives who worked year round full time (usually worked 35 hours or more a week, 50 to 52 weeks during the year) had median earnings of $18,570, compared with $3,650 for those who worked full time for 6 months or less (based on unpublished data, Bureau of Labor Statistics). (5) In 1989, wives of nonearning husbands had earnings that were 80 percent of earnings of wives whose husbands were earners (based on unpublished data, Bureau of Labor Statictics). (6) In 1992, for example, median weekly wage and salary earnings of women 45 to 54 years old who usually worked full time were about 66 percent of earnings of their male counterparts, compared with 82 percent for women 25 to 34 years old. Employment and Earnings, January 1993, table 59, p. 240. (7) Following are median weekly earnings of husbands and wives who were full time wage and salary workers by race and Hispanic origin (1992 annual averages)
 Husbands Wives
White $584 $397
Black 424 351
Hispanic 395 313

Unpublished data from the Current Population Survey. (8) For purposes of determining poverty status, only pretax money income is counted. Income from capital gains and the value of noncash benefits such as food stamps or medicaid are not included. For more information, see Poverty in the United States: 1990, Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 175 (Bureau of the Census, 1991). (9) This measure is limited to families in which the wife already is an earner. As such, it captures the income effect of changes in the amount of employed wives' annual work patterns over time. But it does not reflect the impact on family income of the enormous gains in wives' labor force participation during the period. A measure that reflects these gains can be constructed by dividing the aggregate of all wives' annual earnings by the aggregate of all married couples' annual money incomes. In 1975 (the earliest year for which data are available), this measure indicates that wives' earnings accounted for about 15 percent of the aggregate income of all married-couple families. By 1991, the figure had grown to 22 percent. This measure also reflects the simultaneous rise in the proportion of married-couple families in which no member had earnings, as the result of the aging of the population. (10) Statistical Abstract of the United States: 1992, 11th edition (Bureau of the Census, 1992) table 130, p. 90. (11) Statistical Abstract, calculated from table 82, p. 65 and table 89, p. 69. (12) See Howard V. Hayghe and Suzanne M. Bianchi, "Changing Labor Market Roles of Married Mothers," paper presented at the 1993 Winter Session of the American Statistical Association. (13) The source for subsequent years are unpublished data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Howard V. Hayghe is an economist in the Office of Current Employment Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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Author:Hayghe, Howard V.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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