The rise of women -- just in time

As husbands lose jobs in the great recession, wives are coming to the rescue.

A 30-something couple in Minnesota with two young children has formulated their own plan for dealing with a family financial crisis. The husband’s income at a credit union has been severely cut, and he may lose his job entirely in the coming months. They can no longer afford the payments on their large suburban house.

Their solution is to move into a smaller house with a lower monthly payment.

The key: The couple will qualify for a new mortgage based only on the salary of the wife, who has a safe, good-paying job in the healthcare industry. That means that even if the husband becomes unemployed, they won’t need to default on their loan or risk losing their home.

The steady and dramatic rise over recent decades in education levels and job opportunities for women has come just in time to help blunt the effects of the great recession on male workers, who represent about three-fourths of those being thrown out of work.

Women used to be teased that they went to college to earn their MRS degree – to find a husband and breadwinner. Now the economics of marriage have seen a reversal of fortune: Over recent decades, the financial benefits of marriage to men have grown dramatically, says a study this week from the Pew Research Center.

In 1970, only 4 percent of wives earned more money than their husbands. But by 2007 that had shot up to 22 percent, according to the study, which analyzed census data over that period.

Men who didn’t marry did least well financially. The income of married couples and single women grew about 60 percent between 1970 and 2007. The income of single men grew just 16 percent.

These economic changes mirror changes in women’s education. Forty years ago, 28 percent of wives were less educated than their husbands; only 20 percent had more education.

By 2007 the numbers had flipped: 28 percent of wives had more education than their spouses, while only 19 percent of wives had less education. (In the rest of the cases, both spouses had the same level of education.)

Women in 1970 earned on average 52 cents for every dollar a man earned. By 2007, women earned 71 cents, a great improvement. But that’s not likely to grow much as long as a greater percentage of women work in lower-paying fields and more women than men leave the workplace for periods to raise children.

No one doubts that a family with two breadwinners can place a strain on child-rearing and a general burden on maintaining a household. But more women workers who are well educated means families have new options.

Jobs such as construction and manufacturing, with a high percentage of male workers, are disappearing and aren’t likely to return to prerecession levels. In the future, “Women are just as likely to be the primary bread earner, if not more likely, than men are today,” President Obama acknowledged to The New York Times last spring.

Men take losing their jobs harder than do women, at least one study suggests. Right now, many have lost their status as the chief source of family income. This all could be seen as “the death of macho,” as one scholar has called it. Some predict it could result in a wave of anger, frustration, and even violence from men faced with a new reality.

Another view imagines a world of marriages between equal partners, in which economic stability allows both parties to find new opportunities for personal growth, happiness, and fulfilling parenthood.

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