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.
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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