Speaking of Women's Rights: Changing Economics of Marriage – Hogwash, or Progress?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Changing Economics of Marriage – Hogwash, or Progress?

A new report has caused a stir: the Pew Research Center found that compared with their 1970 counterparts, more men experience economic gains from marriage than women do.

It used to be that fewer wives worked, and marriage enhanced the economic status of women more than that of men. But now, in married couples, the percentage of women whose income outpaces their husbands’ has more than quadrupled over the past 40 years, from 4 percent to 22 percent. As a result, the study concludes, these changes have contributed to a “gender role reversal in the gains from marriage.”*

There is a lot to unpack in the report, but here are some nuggets:

- Education plays an important role in income. And women now constitute the majority (53.5%) of college graduates. That is good news – though of course some women still experience discrimination that inhibits their full ability to participate in educational opportunities.

- Overall, the higher their education level, the more that all adults’ household incomes have risen since 1970. Accordingly, women’s earnings have gone up since 1970 (inflation-adjusted), and by a larger percentage than mens’ – 44 percent, compared with 6 percent for men. However, in 2007, women with full-time jobs still earned only 71 percent of what men earn (compared with 52 percent in 1970). (Note: by 2009, the wage gap had closed slightly more, to about 77%).

- Within each education level, married adults have seen larger gains than unmarried adults – with one exception: women without a high school diploma. Among that group, household incomes slipped 2% from 1970 to 2007, while incomes of unmarried women without a diploma grew 9%. Researchers attribute this lack of income growth for women without diplomas to the poor job prospects of less educated men in their pool of marriage partners.

- With more married women in part of the workforce (indeed, women are projected to soon be the majority) – women’s incomes are increasingly critical to household income.

Of course, no one’s suggesting that either women or men should get married solely because it may provide an economic benefit. Even the report’s co-author acknowledges, “There are plenty of single people doing great, and who can do well on their own and want to do well on their own.”

And there are plenty of people who would, but can’t get married – the report makes no mention of same-sex or opposite sex couples in marriage-like relationships, or people for whom it makes more economic sense to remain unmarried (for example, some widows or some divorced women who would lose benefits upon remarriage).

Ultimately, though, the more that women are economically independent, the less likely they are to feel it is financially necessary to stay in bad marriages. And – although as personal finance expert Michele Singletary rightly notes, money should not dictate the amount of power any partner has in a relationship – to the extent financial contribution does bring power, is it a bad thing for women to have more of it in a relationship?

The fact is, not every woman will end up in a stable, safe marital relationship that brings with it financial security. But every woman should have equal opportunity to the education, and then to the employment that can bring with it financial security.

* While there may have been a “gender role reversal” in some respects, the media’s presentation has managed to perpetuate other stereotypes, even while reporting on these changing trends. The New York Times article declares, “More Men Marrying Wealthier Women” and, oddly, focuses on how it is harder for more educated women – particularly African-Americans – to find mates. And the Seattle Times trumpeted, “Wives bringing home more of the bacon” – evoking a memorably stereotyping perfume ad campaign of the ‘70s (for those of you old enough, you can get your the blast from the past here.) The actual report is entitled “New Economics of Marriage: The Rise of Wives.”