The Region

Are Income Gains Due to More Wives Working Longer Hours?

Terry J. Fitzgerald - Senior Economist and Vice President

Published September 1, 2008  |  September 2008 issue

How much of the gain in household income for middle-income married couples is attributable to more wives putting in longer hours in the workplace? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fraction of married couples with both husband and wife as earners increased substantially between 1976 and 2005, from 48 percent to 57 percent.1
This suggests that much of the growth in household income might be due solely to the increase in paid working hours of wives.

To study this question, the accompanying chart focuses on the middle 20 percent (by income) of married-couple households with children and separates their household income gains by source. Average household income growth from 1976 to 2006 in this “middle” group matches the median income growth rate (43 percent) reported in the table.

Chart: Sources of Household Income Gain For Married Couples with Children
(Excludes Nonmonetary Income Gains)

Average annual working hours of wives in this group almost doubled between 1976 and 2006, rising from 732 hours to 1,360 hours. But surprisingly, this large increase in wives’ working hours accounts for just one-third of the overall income gain.

Average earnings per hour for wives also rose substantially over this period. Earnings per hour—excluding benefits—increased from $9.48 to $15.10 (2006 dollars). This increase accounts for one-fourth of the gain in household income.

Together, the rise in hours worked by wives and earnings per hour for wives account for three-fifths of the overall gain in household income. The rise in husbands’ earnings—mostly due to higher earnings per hour—accounts for another third of the overall increase. The remaining gains stem from a variety of other sources of income.2


Terry J. Fitzgerald

1 See Table: Married-couple families by number and relationship of earners, 1967-2005, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

2The decomposition of the income gains for married couples without children and with a householder between the ages of 30 and 59 is very similar to the results presented here.

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