In a Growing Share of U.S. Marriages, Husbands and Wives Earn About the Same
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In a Growing Share of U.S. Marriages, Husbands and Wives Earn About the Same
Even when earnings are similar, husbands spend more time on paid work and leisure, while wives devote more time to caregiving and housework
BY RICHARD FRY, CAROLINA ARAGÃO, KILEY HURST AND KIM PARKER, PEW RESEARCH
Among married couples in the United States, women’s financial contributions have grown steadily over the last half century. While men remain the main breadwinner in a majority of opposite-sex marriages, the share of women who earn as much as or significantly more than their husband has roughly tripled over the past 50 years.
In 29% of marriages today, both spouses earn about the same amount of money. Just over half (55%) of marriages today have a husband who is the primary or sole breadwinner and 16% have a breadwinner wife.
Even as financial contributions have become more equal in marriages, the way couples divide their time between paid work and home life remains unbalanced. Women pick up a heavier load when it comes to household chores and caregiving responsibilities, while men spend more time on work and leisure.
This is true in egalitarian marriages – where both spouses earn roughly the same amount of money – and in marriages where the wife is the primary earner. The only marriage type where husbands devote more time to caregiving than their wives is one in which the wife is the sole breadwinner. In those marriages, wives and husbands spend roughly the same amount of time per week on household chores.
The five basic marriage types:
Wife is the sole breadwinner: The wife has positive earnings; husband has no earnings.
Wife is the primary breadwinner: The wife earns more than 60% of the couple’s combined earnings (and the husband has earnings).
Egalitarian marriage: Both the wife and husband earn between 40% and 60% of the couple’s combined earnings.
Husband is the primary breadwinner: The husband earns more than 60% of the couple’s combined earnings (and the wife has earnings).
Husband is the sole breadwinner: The husband has positive earnings; wife has no earnings.
As a backdrop to all of this, a majority of Americans say that society values men’s contributions at work more than their contributions at home. Only 7% say society values men’s contributions at home more than those at work, and 35% say these contributions are valued about equally. When it comes to women, about half of adults (49%) say the contributions women make at work and at home are valued about equally. Some 31% say women’s contributions at home are valued more than what they do at work, and 20% say just the opposite.
These findings come from a new Pew Research Center survey and analysis of government data. The nationally representative survey of 5,152 U.S. adults was conducted Jan. 18-24, 2023, using the Center’s American Trends Panel.1 The analysis of government data about opposite-sex married couples is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the American Time Use Survey.2 Here are some of the key findings:
Far fewer husbands are the sole breadwinner in their marriage these days. The share of marriages where the husband is the primary or sole breadwinner has fallen steadily in recent decades, driven mainly by the declining share of marriages where the husband is the sole provider – this was the arrangement in 49% of marriages in 1972, while today that share is 23%.
Breadwinner wives are still in the minority. Relatively few marriages (6%) have a wife who is the sole breadwinner, and wives are the primary breadwinners in 10% of marriages today. The share of marriages where the wife is the sole or primary breadwinner has increased from 5% in 1972 to 16% today.
Earnings arrangements within marriages differ by demographics. Among wives overall, Black women, those with a four-year college degree, those ages 55 to 64 and those with no children are among the most likely to be the breadwinner in their marriage.
In egalitarian and breadwinner wife marriages, husbands spend considerably more time on leisure activities than wives. Husbands in egalitarian marriages spend about 3.5 hours more per week on leisure activities than wives do. Wives in these marriages spend roughly 2 hours more per week on caregiving than husbands do and about 2.5 hours more on housework. In marriages where wives are the primary earners, husbands’ leisure time increases significantly (compared with egalitarian marriages), while the time they spend on caregiving and housework stays about the same. When wives are the sole earners, the amount of time husbands spend on caregiving and housework does tick up somewhat.
The public thinks married men and women have different ideas about which spouse should earn more money. About half of Americans (48%) say most men who are married to a woman would prefer that they earn more than their wife. Only 3% say most men want a wife who earns more than they do, and 13% say most men would prefer that they and their spouse earn about the same. The public has mixed views about what most women would prefer: 22% say most women want a husband who earns more than they do, 26% say most would want to earn about the same as their husband, and only 7% say most women want to earn more than their spouse.
When it comes to what’s best for kids, most Americans think both parents should be equally focused on work and home. A 77% majority say that, when children are being raised by a mother and a father, they are better off if both parents focus equally on their job or career and on taking care of the children and the home. Some 19% say kids are better off if the mom focuses more on home and the dad focuses more on work; only 2% say a dad focused on home and a mom focused on work is ideal.
The earnings landscape of marriages today
Women are contributing an ever-greater share of married couples’ economic resources. In 2022, 16% of opposite-sex marriages had wives who were the sole or primary breadwinners, roughly triple the share from 50 years earlier (5%). Wives were the primary family provider, meaning they earned more than 60% of the couple’s combined earnings, in 10% of marriages in 2022, up from 3% of marriages in 1972. Wives were the sole earners in 6% of these marriages, compared with 2% 50 years earlier.
Marriages in which husbands and wives are roughly equal contributors, meaning they each make between 40% and 60% of the couple’s combined earnings, have also increased substantially. Today 29% of marriages are egalitarian, up from only 11% in 1972.
As women’s financial contributions have increased, the share of marriages in which the husband is the main breadwinner has declined. Today, 55% of marriages have a husband who is the primary or sole contributor to the couple’s earnings. Fifty years ago, husbands were the breadwinner in 85% of marriages.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the decline in the share of marriages with breadwinner husbands was due entirely to the falling share of marriages in which the husband was the sole provider. From 1972 to 1992, this share fell from 49% to 23%, and it has remained at roughly the same level since then.
From the 1990s until today, the falloff in the share of marriages with a breadwinner husband has been driven by a decline in marriages where the husband is the primary provider (from 42% in 1992 to 31% in 2022).
The sharp drop in the share of marriages with a husband as the sole provider during the first two decades occurred as married women streamed into the labor force. Married women’s labor force participation peaked around 2000 and has since modestly declined.
Read the entire study