October 5, 2010 / 7:58 PM / 8 years ago

Wives gain as breadwinners but no real progress

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Women were winners in the U.S. recession, as wives’ income jumped to a record share of family earnings. But it was only by default.

A woman shops in at a Sam's Club in a file photo. REUTERS/Sarah Conard

Wives earned 47 percent of family income in 2009, up from 45 percent the previous year, not because their salaries rose but because more of their husbands lost jobs, according to a study from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

“Make no mistake: this increase is not due to advancement or opportunities for women, but rather it is an indication of hard financial times for families,” said Kristin Smith, a family demographer at the Institute.

Women weren’t getting higher wages during the recession. The median wages of employed wives fell to $30,000 in 2009 from $31,041 two years earlier. The median income of husbands with employed wives fell in that time to $42,000 from $46,562.

Instead, the economy shed more male-dominated jobs such as in construction and manufacturing, which left wives earning more of the family take-home pay, the report said.

“As husbands lose their jobs, family earnings plummet, and the role of wives’ earnings often becomes critical to keeping families afloat,” said Smith.

Almost half of the relative gains that wives made over the past 15 years in bringing home the bacon came during the recession from 2007 to 2009. Their increased earnings share last year was the biggest single-year jump in 15 years.

U.S. unemployment topped 10 percent at its peak before trending down to 9.6 percent in August. That rate will rise to 9.7 percent in September, according to a Reuters survey.

The private-sector National Association of Economic Research this month called the recession over as of June 2009.

But near double-digit unemployment, wage cuts, steep home price losses and record foreclosures mean the pain is far from over.

“Even families that haven’t experienced job loss have had diminished savings, retirement accounts and housing values, and are looking to the second breadwinner as stabilizing their family earnings,” Smith said in an interview.

During the recession, 81 percent of working wives had employed husbands, down from 86 percent.

Unemployment has been particularly high among African American men and men with les s education, and in both cases wives contribute an even higher percentage — 55 percent and 58 percent, respectively — of family earnings, the study noted.

Wives are likely to keep working even after their husbands get new jobs, as families try to recoup funds lost during the recession, said Smith.

“With almost half of family earnings now coming from wives, equity in the workplace needs attention more than ever,” said Smith. “Family economic stability depends on wives’ economic contribution, and families suffer when women earn less.”

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