What is Really Going on Behind the Increase in Married Women Breadwinners?

BlogHer Original Post

When I was browsing the internet last night, I came across an article - Big-Earning Wives, and the Men Who Love Them - on msn.com. Because it is an article from Redbook, which clearly has a particular demographic it caters to (think: heterosexual, middle- and upper-class, mostly white), it is biased towards those same type of couples. Still, I learned some very interesting things about income, education, and new gaps between men and women, and it made me think beyond the scope of the article.

The most salient takeaway for me is that 33% of married women in America earn more than their husbands, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From the article’s perspective, this is due to a seismic shift in educational achievement for women.

In fact, women today are more educated than men: In 1998, there were 125,000 more college-educated women than men, according to the Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. By 2010, that gap is expected to double.

I’m chewing this fact over because I’m not really sure what to make of it. Of course it is a good thing that more and more women are accessing educational milestones and using it to support themselves and their families. On the other hand, why are men falling behind? While I want women to strive and achieve all that they can, it is not an overall gain to a functional society if these accomplishments are offset by deep declines in the achievements of the other 50% or so of the population. Regardless of a person’s sexuality and his/her marriage status, a lack of an educated workforce effects all of us.

However, returning the focus to married women, I think there are other, more sinister reasons that so many women are earning more than their husbands. For example, what percent of American women who earn more than their husbands do so because their husbands are in prison or ex-cons? As our society continues to advocate prison and longer incarcerations as solutions to every social problem, no matter how minor, an increasing number of men are in prison and upon release, are stigmatized as ex-cons. Due to a volatile mix of “law enforcement priorities, sentencing legislation and other factors� that play a role in creating racial disparities in incarceration, Human Rights Watch reports that 63 percent of incarcerated men “are black or Latino, though these two groups constitute only 25 percent of the national population.� If husbands are in jail, that leaves their wives to be the breadwinners.

This does not significantly change even after husbands return from prison. An October 4, 2004 article in the Crain’s New York Business notes that it is harder than ever for ex-cons to find any employment, let alone jobs with good salaries.

While it's difficult to gauge employment rates among former prisoners, advocacy groups say they are having to work harder to find job placement opportunities for their clients. When they do, wages are often lower, benefits are usually nonexistent, and former prisoners have to look longer and harder to find honest work.

At the Doe Fund, a nonprofit that has longstanding relationships in the Manhattan business community, the average wage of people who have found work through the agency has dropped to just below $9 this year. In 2001, the average wage for Doe Fund clients was $9.50. Former inmates take almost twice as long, or about two months on average, to find work after they've been through job training… The fact that they've been out of the market for an extended period of time is an added liability.

…[In addition] jobs former inmates could usually count on finding are no longer available to them. The wealth of jobs in and around airports is now off-limits to people with rap sheets. Many positions driving trucks or working on construction sites are also being restricted. Even jobs at major retail chains are being closed to ex-cons.

I don’t want to demean the heterosexual couples who are working hard and changing stereotypes about who brings home the bacon. I’m very glad that there are men and women out there who are finding meaningful ways to live their lives and raise happy families outside the predominant paradigm. But the article I read leaves out a lot of people, and blindly celebrating the increase in women breadwinners without a full picture of who these women and their husbands are is self-defeating. When women can achieve more without a comparable decline in men’s achievements, and when both sexes are given equal playing fields on which to perform, that will be a time for congratulations and patting ourselves on the backs.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants

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