A Marriage of Hearts and Minds… and Fortunes, Too

Marriage and Money

As women take higher-paying jobs, more and more couples from the same income bracket are coming together. Doctors marry doctors. Lawyers marry lawyers. And their combined incomes are pushing these couples financially far ahead of other U.S. households. Comstock / Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Comstock / Corbis

Stories in this Series

  • Series Overview: The Haves and Have-Nots — Over the past generation, the financial gulf between the rich and everyone else has widened. Uri Berliner examines the phenomenon.
  • Part 1: The View from the Top — At the top of our income distribution, life is sweet... sweet enough to send private jet sales up sharply. John Ydstie reports on why inequality is growing again and discusses some of the ideas for restraining it.
  • Part 2: Ivy Tower, Blue Collar — What's it like to be a not-so-rich kid at a private, elite school like Amherst? Jim Zarroli finds out.
  • Part 3: Big Hoops Dreams, Tiny Paychecks — The average NBA player makes more than $5 million a year. One notch below, athletes in the NBA's development league earn as little as $15,000 a year. Tom Goldman reports.
  • Part 4: Fears Overblown? — Some economists aren't all that concerned about a growing income gap. They believe a society that allows the market to reward education and skills is moving in the right direction, and worry about the unintended consequences of government intervention. Adam Davidson reports.
  • Part 5: Married with Money — Part of what's driving income inequality: Men and women in high-paying fields tend to pair off and form high-income families. Chris Arnold reports.
  • Part 6: Lucky Strikes — During the golden stock-option years, some employees struck it rich... but others came too late or just didn't time it right to share the wealth. Wendy Kaufman reports.
  • Part 7: When the Good Jobs Vanish — What happens to factory workers when their well-paid manufacturing jobs move overseas? Jim Zarroli reports.

Like many married couples, Alex Smith and Cindy Hsu have a lot in common. They're both 32 years old. They both like Chinese food, show tunes and American Idol. And they're both doctors.

The idea that people tend to pick partners with similar backgrounds is not a new one. But with more and more women in the workplace, those matches are becoming even more similar. Executives are marrying executives. Lawyers are pairing up with lawyers. And when both partners bring home significant incomes, it helps push these couples far ahead of other households.

One or two generations ago, Smith and Hsu probably would have lived on the income of one doctor.

"My grandfather on my dad's side was a doctor, and my grandmother, his wife, didn't work. So he provided the income for the whole family, and that was a large family of five kids," Smith says.

Hsu recently finished her training and began working as an anesthesiologist. Starting salaries for the jobs she looked at ranged from $170,000 to $250,000 a year. Her husband is finishing his training and makes less as a palliative care researcher. But like many doctor-couples, their combined income is around $300,000 a year. In a few years, it's likely to jump to $400,000.

"That is way more than either of our parents made," Smith says. "My mom was almost embarrassed by the amount of money. When I've told her how much it is, she gets this very scared look in her eye — like that's just really uncomfortable for her to think about somebody making that much money."

In past generations, when a wife in a family went to work, it actually tended to equalize Americans' incomes overall.

Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, says that most mothers in the '50s and '60s were married and did not work.

"When women in that position did work, it was often because they were married to a husband who wasn't earning a very good wage himself," he says. "And the earnings of that mother tended to bring her family closer to the middle class than otherwise would have been the case."

Burtless says that has changed as women have joined the work force in greater numbers and with much higher-paying jobs.

However, many middle-income people are getting squeezed. Wages have been flat, and the cost of health care, education and housing has been rising.

Jimmie and Julie Salvitela are both public-school teachers. They live in Cambridge, Mass.

"I found teaching and loved it, and didn't really think about the money until more recently, when I started thinking about having a family and those pressures," she says.

The Salvitela's combined income barely allows them to live in a modest one-bedroom condo. To afford it, they had to buy a fixer-upper. They installed the kitchen themselves and, in the meantime, washed dishes in the bathtub for months.

"Sixty percent of what we make goes into our mortgage, which is overwhelming, because if anything ever happened, we don't necessarily have much in savings right now," he says.

Regardless, family earnings in the middle- and lower-income brackets still get a very important boost from two paychecks. Adjusted for inflation, average earnings for middle- and lower-income men have been decreasing for a generation. But working wives' incomes have increased sharply.

"I think there's consensus that changes in women's economic opportunities have done a lot for families at the bottom," says Maria Cancian, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

At the Brookings Institute, Burtless ranks the decline in the marriage rate as one of the top factors contributing to income inequality. Single-parent families don't bring in as much income as married couples. Globalization and changes in technology have reduced the power of labor unions and pounded the wages of blue-collar workers, but he says that a big piece of the story is the formation of families at the bottom and top of the income distribution.

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