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UNH study shows families still rely on wives' income

DURHAM - New research from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire reveals that American families are still relying on the income of wives at record levels, despite the end of the recession.

Employed wives' contributions to total family income is holding steady at 47 percent, its highest level in decades, according to the report.

"If history is a good guide, it is likely that wives' share of total family earnings will not return to pre-recession levels, but rather, the Great Recession will serve to propel wives' contributions higher," said Kristin Smith, family demographer with the Carsey Institute and a research assistant professor of sociology at UNH, in a news release.

She said it is likely wives will remain in the labor force even after their husbands return to work, as many families have lost ground due to diminished savings, housing values and retirement accounts.

"Thus, it is critical to pay attention to the implications of wives as breadwinners for families and the workplace," Smith said.

Her research is presented in a Carsey Institute brief titled "Recessions Accelerate Trend of Wives as Breadwinners."

According to the brief, from 2008 to 2009 employed wives' contributions to total family earnings jumped from 45 percent to 47 percent, the largest single-year increase during the last 23 years.

Smith also looked at previous recessions and found that they substantially accelerate the trend of increased reliance on wives' earnings.

In all three recessions since 1988, annual increases in employed wives' share of total family earnings rose substantially.

Smith also found that employed wives' share of total family earnings is higher and more responsive to economic downturns when the husband has a high school degree or less compared with a college degree.

According to Smith, working families were already under stress before the recession from increased time spent working, inflexible workplaces that have not kept pace with changing families, and the lack of policy supports.

"Policies to support working families, such as paid sick leave and paid family medical leave, affordable quality child care, livable wages, and measures that increase workplace flexibility, could help reduce the work and family conflict that many men and women experience," Smith said. "In addition, there is an obvious need for continued job creation, continued support for long-term unemployment, and expanded public assistance and food stamps to help families during this economic recovery."

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Gretyl Macalaster may be reached at


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