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Many Wives Make More Than Their Spouses, but We Probably Shouldn’t Call Them ‘Breadwinners’

They still don’t make as much as the men who are primary earners.

By Philip N. Cohen

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Telephone operators at work in Stratford, East London, circa 1950. (Photo: Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images)

Nowadays, women are much more likely to earn more income than their spouse than they used to. But this is a shift, not a revolution, because very very few women are the kind of breadwinner that some men used to be.

Using data on 18- to 64-year-old married wives and their spouses (95.5 percent of which were men) from decennial censuses and the 2014 American Community Survey, here are some facts from 2014:

  • In 2014, 25 percent of wives earned more than their spouses (up from 15 percent in 1990 and 7 percent in 1970).
  • The average wife-who-earns-more takes home 68 percent of the couple’s earnings. The average for higher-earning men is 82 percent.
  • In 40 percent of the wife-earns-more couples, she earns less than 60 percent of the total, compared with 18 percent for higher-earning men.
  • It is almost nine times more common for a husband to earn all the money than a wife (19.6 percent versus 2.3 percent).

Here is the distribution of income in married couples (wife ages 18–64; the bars add to 100 percent):

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Male and female breadwinners are not equivalent; making $0.01 more than your spouse doesn’t make you a 1950s breadwinner, or the “primary earner” of the family.

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This story originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “25% of Wives Earn More Than Their Spouses, but We Probably Shouldn’t Call Them ‘Breadwinners.’”

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