More American Families Rely on Working Wife

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In the upcoming movie Made In Dagenham, current Brit eccentric darling Sally Hawkins plays Rita O’Grady, a factory worker and mother of two, who inspires 187 women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant in England to go out on strike, and brings the car company’s biggest factory in Europe to a standstill. Their actions eventually lead to Britain’s Equal Pay Act of 1970.

Not all the workers at the Ford plant — or even the union, or even her family — support her. One of the other factory workers publicly opines that women don’t need to make as much as their husbands, because men are the primary income-generators. (Not his exact phrase.) Appositely, just as the film arrives in cinemas, it transpires that wives are actually pretty close to winning as much of the family bread as husbands.

According to a new report from the Carsey Institute, a public policy think tank at the University of New Hampshire, working wives contributed 47% of total family earnings in 2009, a 2% jump over the year before and the largest single increase in the last 15 years. Families reliance on working wives’ paychecks has been increasing for several years, but this is a sharp uptick. Between 1995 to 2007, by way of contrast, the slice of the household bacon wives brought home grew only 4%. (More on Divorce as Spectator Sport).

This increase is not, alas, because of raises in women’s wages relative to men’s, which remain at about 83% for people doing the same level job. It’s because of greater unemployment among husbands. “Almost half of the total increase over the past 15 years occurred during the Great Recession,” the report says.

And it has hit this recession’s type of victims — those who work in manufacturing or construction — particularly hard. Among black families and those where the husband has less education, wives are now actually the primary breadwinners, bringing home 55% and 58%, respectively, of the family revenues. (More on Another Clue to the Scarcity of Women Executives).

All of this can make things pretty tricky for working families. First, studies (and Sen. Harry Reid) find that men take unemployment, and loss of earning power, much harder than women do. Secondly, more mothers are working than before. (Employed mothers bring home 43% of the household income, an even sharper uptick over the years before.) And women, even those who have full time jobs, still do the bulk of the work around the home. Into this stress-stew, let’s throw those old brainteasers: work-family conflict, lack of affordable childcare, lack of paid family medical leave, inflexible schedules.

It’s unlikely this is going to end as happily Made In Dagenham.

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