Not just to boost family income

The conventional economic wisdom is that the main reason so many married women have entered the workplace in recent decades is to shore up family incomes in an era of scant wage growth--a response augmented by shifting gender roles and aspirations.

In a new study, however, economist Allen M. Parkman of the University of New Mexico suggests this is far from the whole story. For one thing, he notes that many working wives now come from higher-income households, and a big chunk of their added earnings is often eaten up by taxes, child care, and work-related expenses--sharply reducing the immediate economic gain.

Researchers also find that while married women now put in more total work hours (in their jobs and doing home tasks) than they used to, their husbands don't. ''If wives are working harder,'' asks Parkman, ''why aren't their husbands helping out more at home?''

The answer, according to Parkman, is related to how the high incidence of divorce in America has affected women's work decisions. Before the advent of no-fault divorce, he argues, the need to secure the cooperation of a spouse to obtain a divorce provided nonworking wives with strong leverage to secure decent divorce settlements. As no-fault divorce laws swept the nation in the 1970s and 1980s and the divorce rate surged higher, that leverage weakened, and many wives sought outside work to protect themselves from economic hardship in the event of a divorce.

To prove his point, Parkman analyzed nationwide survey data from 1981. He found that married women in states with no-fault divorce laws were not only more likely to be employed outside the home than their peers in states lacking such laws but that they also tended to put in significantly more hours of total work--some 4 1/2 hours a week.

Thus, concludes Parkman, with no-fault divorce now the national norm, many married women are taking jobs at least in part as insurance against the possible adverse financial effects of divorce. And the fact that many husbands are not pitching in more at home suggests an implicit awareness that more than ''family welfare'' is prompting their wives to earn that extra paycheck.



Updated Sept. 11, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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