The education gap between spouses shapes wives’ long-term income trajectories, but the impact varies depending on the couple’s race, according to a new Western study.
For the study, social demographers Kate Choi and Patrick Denice analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (U.S.) to document how much or how little wives contribute to couple’s total income during (and up to) the first four decades of marriage.
The study, published in the high-impact journal Demography, revealed that wives’ income trajectories differed significantly by race.
White wives were more likely than Black and Hispanic wives to continuously be secondary earners, meaning their earnings accounted for less than half of their family’s household income. They were also more likely to reduce their labour force participation following the birth of a child or when they have young children. By contrast, Black wives were more likely than white and Hispanic wives to continuously be the primary earner or contribute equally to the household economy as their husbands.
“Due to systemic inequalities that expose Black and Hispanic men in the United States to greater job precarity and lower earnings, larger shares of Black and Hispanic men may not earn enough to support their families financially so their families may depend more on wives’ income,” said Kate Choi, director of the Centre for Research on Social Inequality. “As a consequence, Black and Hispanic wives are more likely than their white peers to continuously work as a primary or equal earner.”
Prior research has shown that the educational gap between spouses shapes the division of labour within households, including wives’ contribution to the household economy. Wives who attained more schooling than their husbands tend to contribute a higher share of the couple’s total income than those married men with similar or higher levels of education.
In the absence of significant levels of racial inequalities in the labour market, the impact of the educational gap between spouses on wives’ income trajectories will differ little by race. Yet, the researchers found that the educational gap between spouses has a far stronger impact on white wives’ income trajectories than on Black and Hispanic wives’ income trajectories.
Among white women, there is evidence of a clear positive relationship between wife’s relative levels of education and their income contribution. A white wife with higher levels of education than her husband is more likely than their peers with similar or lower levels of education to consistently be a primary or equal earner. By contrast, wives who attained less schooling than their husbands are less likely than white wives who attained similar or more schooling than their husbands to be the primary or equal earner.
This gradient is less pronounced for Black and Hispanic wives. While Black and Hispanic wives who attained more schooling than their husbands are more likely than other Black and Hispanic wives to continuously be a primary or secondary earner, differences between those with the same or lower levels of education is negligible.
“Overall, these findings suggest that partner selection has a more muted effect on the economic and family lives of racial minority women than it does on the lives of white women. Systemic inequalities in the labour market limit Black and Hispanic men’s returns to education,” said Choi. “Irrespective of their relative levels of education, Black and Hispanic wives end up contributing more to the household economy.”
Another possibility to explain why these patterns may emerge is because a lower share of Black and Hispanic women has jobs that offer them access to benefits like parental leave which allows them to temporarily interrupt or reduce their labour force participation following childbirth or as they are raising young families.