Are Married Women Picking up the Slack?

In last Friday’s post, I pointed out that middle-income men have seen a decline in their real income since the mid-1970s. A recent NYTimes article by Campbell Robinson pointed out that in coal country, an extreme version of this trend has played out, with coal jobs vanishing over the last few decades. The loss of these jobs has left not just lower incomes, but an actual lack of work for men without a college education. In the wake of this change, the article explains that many wives are picking up the slack by working more.

This article got me wondering about whether or not this trend has played out more broadly. Are men without a college education seeing vanishing job opportunities nationwide and, if so, are their wives picking up the slack?

So, I looked in the Current Population Survey (a national survey used to calculate things like the unemployment rate) and isolated married men and women with a high school degree or less and identified: 1) which of these individuals was working a full-time job; and 2) how much they made. The figure below plots how much more likely these men were to work than their wives in 1975 and 2017, and also how much more they earned when they did work. The figure shows that men without a college education were 3 times as likely to work as their wives in 1975 and only twice as likely in 2017. In 1975, husbands earned 1.8 times what their working wives made, in 2017 it was 1.4 times as much.

Figure. Relative Work and Earnings for Married Men and Women without a College Education

Note: Figure focuses on married men and women age 25-54 without any college education.

So, the broad trend discussed in the article would appear to be playing out. Married women are working more and also earning more relative to their husbands. However, the underlying story for the whole population is a bit different than in mining country. In the nation as a whole, married men without a college education are working almost exactly as often as they did in the past — in 1975, they worked 80.1 percent of the time, and in 2017 81.7 percent. It’s just that married women are working a whole lot more. Hey, that’s good news!

Instead, the bad news (you knew there had to be some) for these men is showing up on the earnings side of the equation. Married men without a college education saw their wages decline by 20 percent over this time period, from $56,000 to $44,000 a year. This decline is huge when one considers that, you know, incomes are supposed to go up over time.

So, while in coal country men without a college education seem to be losing their jobs and their wives are filling the breach, the larger picture is a bit different. Women still seem to be filling a gap, but one left behind not by their husbands’ job losses, but instead by the loss of their wages. If you want to better understand this scary trend and it’s implications, please follow the blog, because you can bet excitement is on the way (as long as you find charts exciting).

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