SCOTT SIMON, host:
This weekend NPR programs are taking a look at the growing income gap in America. Today, a factor you might not have considered: marriage. People tend to marry people with similar backgrounds. That's not new, but these days, with more and more women working, you have executives marrying executives, lawyers pairing up with lawyers, doctors getting married to other doctors; and having two powerful incomes like that can push these couples far ahead of most other households. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD: It's afternoon snack time for Alex Smith and Cindy Hsu's(ph) 16-month-old son Kai(ph), who is banging his spoon on his kid-sized cup of organic yogurt.
Dr. ALEX SMITH (Physician): (Unintelligible) yogurt.
(Soundbite of banging)
ARNOLD: Like many married couples, Smith and Hsu have a lot in common. They're both doctors, they're both 32, they like Chinese food and show tunes and watching "American Idol."
Dr. CINDY SHU (Physician): We met in medical school in San Francisco. We were in the same neurology rotation.
ARNOLD: A generation or two ago, this family probably would've lived on the income of one doctor.
Mr. SMITH: My grandfather on my dad's side was a doctor, and my grandmother - so his wife didn't work. So he provided the income for the whole family. And that was a large family. They had five kids.
ARNOLD: By contrast, this family has one kid, so far, and two doctors' incomes. Cindy Hsu just finished her training and began working as an anesthesiologist. Starting salaries for the job 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 two-doctor couples, their combined income is around $300,000 a year. In a few years it should be above 400,000.
Mr. SMITH: And that's way more than either of our parents made. My mom was almost embarrassed about the amount of money that we make. 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 of somebody making that much money.
ARNOLD: In past generations, when a wife and a family went to work, it actually tended to equalize Americans' incomes overall. Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, explains. He says back in the '50s and '60s, most mothers were married and did not work.
Mr. GARY BURTLESS (Brookings Institution): 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. And the earnings of that mother tended to bring her family closer to the middle class than otherwise would have been the case.
ARNOLD: Burtless says that's changed as women have joined the workforce in greater numbers and in much higher paying jobs.
Mr. BURTLESS: Now, when a doctor's wife goes to work, she is likely to earn a very good wage, number one, because she's very well educated herself. And that means that her wage, added to her husband's wage, tends to take that family further above a middle class income level than was true back in the 1950s or '60s.
ARNOLD: Meanwhile, a lot of middle income people are getting squeezed. Wages have been pretty flat and the cost of healthcare, education and housing has been rising.
Mr. JIMMIE SALVITELA(ph) (Public School Teacher): My mother was a special ed teacher, and I always knew that I wanted to work with children.
ARNOLD: Jimmie Salvitela and his wife Julie are both public school teachers. They live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ms. JULIE SALVITELA (Public School Teacher): I found teaching. I loved it. And I didn't really think about the money until more recently, when I started thinking about having a family and those kinds of pressures.
ARNOLD: In a two-doctor family, the second income can bring in upwards of $200,000 a year. In this two-teacher family...
Ms. SALVITELA: I make about 37.
ARNOLD: The Salvitelas's combined income just barely allows them to live in this modest one-bedroom condo.
Mr. SALVITELA: Much of our - I mean, 60 percent of what we make goes to our mortgage, which is overwhelming, because if anything ever happened, you know, we don't necessarily have much of a savings right now.
ARNOLD: And even to afford this, the Salvitelas had to buy a serious fixer-upper. They've put the kitchen in themselves. They washed dishes in the bathtub for months. And the rest of the condo needed a ton of work.
Mr. SALVITELA: It was really bad. When we got it inspected, the guys was like, you don't want to live here. You don't want to do this. I was like, please.
ARNOLD: All that said, having two paychecks, even in the middle and lower income brackets, still gives a very important boost to families' earnings these days. Adjusted for inflation, average earnings for middle and lower income men have been decreasing for a generation.
Meanwhile, working wives' incomes have increased sharply. Maria Cancian is an economist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Ms. MARIA CANCIAN (University of Wisconsin-Madison): And I think there is consensus that changes in women's economic opportunities have done a lot for families at the bottom.
ARNOLD: So even if there are more two-doctor or two-lawyer couples these days, it turns out that a much bigger factor in income inequality overall is just whether or not people are married. Marriage rates have been decreasing and the marriage rate is falling most sharply among lower income people.
Ms. CANCIA: It's not only about what each individual earns. A big piece of the story is how people at the bottom and the top of the income distribution are forming or not forming families.
ARNOLD: Gary Burtless of Brookings ranks the decline in the marriage rate as one of the top factors contributing to income inequality. Clearly there are others. Globalization and changes in technology have reduced the power of labor unions and pounded the wages of blue collar workers.
The biggest beneficiaries of these changes are those at the very top of the income chart - corporate executives, entrepreneurs, people on Wall Street, lawyers - whose incomes are far outpacing the rest of the nation.
(Soundbite of music)
Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.