Marriage Economics

Posted on Categories Family Law

weddingYesterday’s New York Times reports that there has been something of a reversal of marriage fortunes between men and women.  According to a recent analysis of census data by the Pew Research Center, “Men are increasingly likely to marry wives with more education and income than they have, and the reverse is true for women.”  Although other studies have shown that there continues to be a gender gap favoring men in wages (meaning that women earn, on average, somewhat less than similarly situated men engaged in the same work), it appears that the average wage imbalance in a given marriage is likely to be in the opposite direction.  Trends in the last year have exacerbated this imbalance, since men were far more likely than women to lose their jobs in the recession.  The report also notes that in married couples “wives contribute a growing share of the household income, and a rising share of those couples includes a wife who earns more than her husband.”

It is interesting to speculate on the impact these trends will have on marriage and divorce. 

It is possible that there will be fewer marriages, since fewer women will be motivated to marry for economic security as was common in days gone by.  In fact, the article acknowledges that marriage rates have declined in recent years.  The data are hard to interpret, though.  On the one hand, women who have college degrees are more likely to marry than are women who don’t have college degrees.  On the other hand, anecdotal evidence like that reported in the article indicates that educated women feel that many men are threatened by the prospect of having a higher-earning wife.  Some of these women would like to be married, but haven’t found any takers yet.

It is also possible that this trend will further reduce the number of divorce cases involving alimony awards to women, and possibly increase alimony awards to men.  Alimony was originally conceived as a continuation of a husband’s support of his ex-wife once the marriage ended, and came from a time when women’s opportunities for self-support were few.  Eventually, the law evolved so that alimony could be awarded to the lower-earning spouse, whether the husband or the wife, to maintain that person at some semblance of the marital standard of living or to obtain the job skills to be adequately self-supporting.  Despite the gender neutrality of the modern concept of alimony, only a small minority of alimony awards are currently made to ex-husbands.  Over the past several decades, alimony awards (whether to men or women) have been fewer and for shorter periods of time – a result that is consistent with evidence that women are more likely to be the higher earners in many marriages.

Theoretically, we could see alimony awards remaining constant, while seeing a shift in awards away from ex-wives and towards ex-husbands.  I suspect that there will be significant resistance to this happening, because the notion that men “should” be breadwinners is still quite strong in this society.  The Pew Research Center report also states that only the wife worked in seven percent of households last year, up from five percent in 2007.  These numbers were higher in African-American households, where twelve percent had only the wife working last year compared to nine percent in 2007.  The husband is a breadwinner in a large majority of households, and this is in keeping with our social expectations.  There continues to be a gender stereotype that makes it difficult for men to successfully seek alimony from their working ex-wives.  The fact that more men have lost their jobs in the Great Recession, coupled with the fact that financial woes put a strain on marriages, may challenge the traditional gender expectations.  Perhaps more of those better educated, higher-earning wives will become ex-wives with alimony to pay.

5 thoughts on “Marriage Economics”

  1. Judi,

    Thank you for a very interesting post. A few years ago, as you know, I handled a divorce case down in Illinois. It required a bit of an education for me on any number of matters — a “crash course,” if you will. This is, as I emphasize to students, one of the attractive if challenging things about aspects of the law, that one frequently has to learn. In any event, I was grateful then that alimony was not part of the case, and your summary of the changing social dynamics at play causes me to realize that in that particular case it would have been all the more problematic to sort out. (I am reprising my “10 Things/28 Days” presentation with Tom St. John in a couple of weeks, and we are including Judge Michael Dwyer this time around, who will add a judge’s perspective.) — JDK

  2. Interesting post, Professor. I wonder what impact this trend will have on the division of household labor and childcare between spouses. I remember reading a survey several months ago that showed that in families where both spouses work full-time outside the home, housework was still divided unevenly, with the wife responsible for the greater part of the chores. Could disparity in income earned by spouses lead to equality in number of diapers changed?

  3. In response to Dean Kearney: Alimony is a challenging issue in cases where it is contested, partly because the doctrines are confusing and somewhat inconsistent, and partly because judicial resolutions (in the event the parties cannot agree between themselves) are notoriously unpredictable. It really does make it harder for lawyers to give themselves crash courses in divorce law!

    In response to Sara Kneevers: It is indeed an interesting question whether husbands will do more housework as their wives earn comparatively more income. The research on housework allocation between spouses does, for the most part, still indicate that wives do the bulk of the chores, even if the wives are also employed outside the home. For example, a University of Michigan study based on 2005 data showed that married women with no children averaged 17 hours of housework a week, while their husbands averaged 7 hours per week — a greater than 2 to 1 ratio. Women with more than 3 children averaged 28 hours of housework per week, compared to an average of 10 hours a week for their husbands. However, back in 1976, women averaged 26 hours of housework per week compared to a weekly average of 6 hours for men. It is possible that the fact that more married women are in the workforce has led to women doing less housework. Their husbands may pick up part of the slack, hired help may be a factor, and (perhaps) housekeeping standards have relaxed somewhat. But even when they are contributing significant money to the household, American women still seem to do more housework than their husbands. Will this change if the relative economic contributions of the spouses changes? Maybe. I suspect that culture may be as important as economics. A recent Australian study showed that as women earned a higher percentage of the family income, the women did less housework. However, when the women earned more than 70 percent of the family income, an interesting thing happened: the women actually started to do MORE housework than wives who earned a lesser percentage of the family income. The researchers speculated that as women earned more, they felt guilty about neglecting family obligations or felt they had something to prove about their abilities as wives and mothers. Social gender expectations strike again!

  4. Here is an ABC News piece on women being ordered to pay alimony to their ex-husbands:

    In an even more bizarre twist, here is a report of women being ordered to pay alimony, not to ex-husbands, but to their current husbands’ ex-wives:

    Alimony in a no-fault divorce regime is a real bizarre concept; especially in cases where the one doing the leaving also does the receiving. I can’t find the link to it but there was a news story of a female biotech executive in Cambridge, MA who caught her failed-artist husband cheating, but then had to pay alimony to him after he ran off with his much younger lover — some justice.

    Like adultery, that other scarlet letter word, alimony should be retired into the dustbin of legal history.

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