In a trend that researchers call "the rise of wives," women are increasingly better educated than their husbands and have emerged as the dominant income provider.

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In a trend that researchers call “the rise of wives,” women are increasingly better educated than their husbands and have emerged as the dominant income provider in one of five marriages, according to a new report released today.

Looking at the impact of nearly four decades of social change, the report shows that men increasingly get a significant economic boost when they tie the knot — improving their household incomes and often pairing up with a partner who has at least as much education as they do.

Compared with 1970, when men usually married women with less education and fewer wives worked, these changes have contributed to a “gender role reversal in the gains from marriage,” the report said.

“What’s radically changed is that marriage now is a better deal for men,” said Richard Fry, co-author of the report, published by the Pew Research Center. “Now when men marry, often their spouse works quite a bit. Often she is better educated than the guy.” In 1970, unmarried men “had a higher economic status than married guys,” he said, “but no longer.”

Researchers brought together data from the U.S. Census Bureau to probe how income and education played out in married life for U.S.-born spouses ages 30 to 44, an age group that is the first in U.S. history to include more women than men with college degrees.

The report found that in more than half of these married couples, spouses have nearly equal levels of education. The wife is better educated in 28 percent of marriages, while in 19 percent the husband has more education.

Men are still the major contributors of household income — with 78 percent making at least as much or more than their wives — but the percentage of women whose income has outpaced their husband’s has more than quadrupled, jumping from just 4 percent in 1970 to 22 percent now.

Stephanie Coontz, a history professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, who writes often about marriage, said she’s been struck by the dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs that in the past had enabled many men without college educations to earn high enough wages to raise a family.

The loss of those jobs, Coontz said, “is something no feminist would take pleasure in.”

Yet she said the trends also reflected that many husbands no longer feel compelled to be their families’ sole breadwinner and are embracing a bigger share of household responsibilities and child-raising.

“If it weren’t for the gains of the women’s movement, which have produced a steady equalization of women’s wages and new incentives for women to get more education … most families would have stagnated in their living standards even before the recession,” Coontz said.

The economic recession has accelerated the trend. The report cited labor statistics showing men lost three-quarters of jobs for prime working-age individuals in 2008. Women have not lost jobs at the same rate and “are shouldering more economic responsibilities for their families than ever before,” said sociologist Kathleen Gerson, author of “The Unfinished Revolution: How a New Generation Is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America.”

“The economic crisis has made something visible that’s been building for a long time,” she said.

Men still out-earn women, but the gap is narrowing. In 2007, full-year women workers had median earnings of about $33,000, which was 71 percent of men’s median earnings of about $46,000. Back in 1970, women’s earnings were 52 percent of men’s.

At one time, men might have been embarrassed to be out-earned by their spouses, said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, but now “more and more husbands are pleased to have the income a wife brings in.”

“As women have brought more money into the marriage, their authority and decision-making power has grown,” said Cherlin, author of “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.” “But it’s not that women are calling the shots. It’s that husbands and wives are sharing the decision-making power.”

The report noted differences by race. Black wives have a stronger history in the workforce and were more likely to be better educated than their husbands in 1970. In 2007, one-third of black wives were better educated than their spouses, higher than for the population overall. Among college-educated black husbands, 26 percent have wives who make more than they do. For those with less education, the proportion of wives who out-earn them is greater.

The authors did not present results for Asian and Hispanic spouses.

Marriage itself is in some decline, the report showed. In 1970, 84 percent of the 30- to 44-year-old group was married. Now it is 60 percent. Black marriage rates were lower, with 62 percent of African-American women married in 1970, a number that declined to 33 percent in 2007.

Additional information from The Associated Press and The New York Times