In 1972, men were the primary or sole breadwinners in 85% of opposite-sex marriages. 50 years later, things have changed — drastically. 

Today, according to new research from the Pew Research Center, husbands are the sole or primary breadwinners in 55% of marriages.

The change over several decades can be attributed to a variety of factors. For example, women are pursuing higher education at higher rates and choosing to have fewer children or none at all.

On the other hand, Pew found 29% of all marriages today are egalitarian. Meaning a couple’s earnings are more equal. Each person makes between 40% to 60% of the joint income. 

And 16% of marriages have wives as the main source of income. 

These numbers are not the same for married Black women. 

Pew found one-in-four Black wives out-earn their husbands. And, according to Pew’s survey and analysis of existing government data, Black women are more likely than any other ethnic group to be in marriages where they’re the breadwinner or in an egalitarian marriage.

Of marriages where the wife is Black, the husband is the main source of income 40% of the time. The wife is the main source in 26% of marriages. And, 34% are egalitarian.

Education Propels Black Women Into Making More Money

Richard Fry, senior economist at Pew Research Center and researcher for the report, attributes these findings to education. Fry told Word In Black that Black wives are often better educated than their husbands.

In the 2020-2021 academic year, of all 206,527 Black college graduates earning bachelor’s degrees, Black women earned 134,435 — about 65%. Black men earned 72,092, about 35%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics

The trend continues for master’s and doctorate degrees.

Antonius Skipper, assistant professor of gerontology at Georgia State University, says this data is not surprising. If anything, it makes sense.

Skipper’s research focuses on African American marriages. He regularly interviews couples with enduring unions and works to find out how they built their relationship and how they cope with common stressors.

“If you look around pretty much any college campus, a large percentage of African American students there are women,” he says.

In addition to this, Black men are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. This has long-term effects on Black men’s mental health and income.

Dianne M. Stewart, professor of religion and African American studies at Emory University, agrees. Stewart is the author of “Black Women, Black Love: America’s War on African American Marriage.”

“The numbers are not matching up for Black women to have partners within their social and economic range,” she says.

“It’s fairly likely that millions of Black women with college degrees are marrying Black men who either have a high school diploma or an associate degree. Therefore, those Black women might be in skilled labor jobs or professional positions. They will likely make more money than the men they’re marrying.”

Dianne m. stewart, professor of religion and african american studies at emory university

Skipper and Stewart also pointed to the transatlantic slave trade and centuries of institutional discrimination as reasons for these arrangements in marriages.

“Black women making more money and being in spaces that historically they may not have been able to be in, that helps strengthen the Black family and closes the racial wealth gap,” Skipper says.

Being the Breadwinner Only Matters if You Make it Matter

In Skipper’s perspective, despite the financial role women play, marriage can be financially beneficial for the Black community. It’s a tool for getting out of poverty, he says, more than education or changing neighborhoods.

A study on reasons for divorce named financial problems as one of the top contributors to marital issues and divorce. And patriarchal structures within unions can contribute to this as well if a couple embraces the ideals that come with it, Stewart says.

“If this is what they’re embracing, they will notice the dissonance between the ideal and what can be pragmatically worked out,” Stewart says. “I would think this has to cause some sort of conflict, difficulty, or stress.”

One thing Skipper noticed in his research on Black marriages is their varying financial situations. He found that what matters for married couples is how money is managed in a relationship, not how much each person makes.

“I don’t think there really should be an issue here,” Skipper says. “Let’s remove those stereotypical role expectations and really view this as a partnership.”

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