Changes in the Family Economic Contributions of Husbands and Wives

Maria M. Cancian, University of Wisconsin at Madison
Deborah S. Reed, Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC)

Wives and mothers have increased their labor force participation and earnings, raising questions about the relative importance of husbands' and wives' contributions to family income. We use decennial census data for 1970 to 2000 to estimate the proportion of couples with wife-primary, husband-primary or equal (each contributing 40 to 60 percent) earnings or hours/weeks worked. We show that, contrary to media accounts that have emphasized the recent growth of couples in which the wife is the "dominant" earner, the greatest increases in wife-primary and equal working and earning couples occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. We document differences by education, race/ethnicity, and the age and presence of children. Equal work is far more common than equal earnings. Wives of high-earning husbands continue to be somewhat less likely to work, however there is little evidence of a parallel reduction in work for husbands with high earning wives.

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Presented in Session 52: Gender and Family Roles