When men earn less than their wives, both spouses lie about it

Image: Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP
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In most US marriages, husbands earn more than their wives do. Fascinating new research sheds light on the hidden internal conflicts in the minority of couples who flip those roles.

The findings comes from a comparison of two data sets: people’s self-reported income on the US Census survey, and their actual reported income to the US Internal Revenue Service, where lying about those numbers comes with a penalty.

Economists Marta Murray-Close and Misty L. Heggeness of the US Census Bureau examined data collected between 2003 and 2015 in the bureau’s Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement, then compared that data to the income those same couples’ employers reported to the IRS.

IRS data showed that wives out-earned husbands in about 22.9% of couples. When their wives earned more, men who filled out their family’s Census survey reported earnings to the Census that were about 2% higher than they actually were—and knocked about 2% off their wives’ income.

When women who earned more were in charge of filling out the family’s Census data, they lied, too. They deflated their own earnings by a little less than 1%, and over-reported their husband’s wages by 3.7%

The overall effect distorts the family’s total self-reported income, overstating it by about 2.9%when husbands do the survey and understating it by about 1.5% when wives do. That’s not helpful for anyone: Census data fuels research on everything from health to income inequality, and inaccurate information makes it harder for researchers to get a clear picture of problems and potential solutions.’

But it’s also a fascinating look at gender relationships within marriage. Why do these couples feel compelled to lie?

It’s no secret that people paint pictures of themselves on self-reported surveys that are rosier than reality, but the fact that so-called “nontraditional” earning couples are inclined to lie in the same direction indicates that they both find something inherently embarrassing about a woman earning more than her male partner. (Same-sex couples were not part of the study.)

In 2015, researchers from the University of Chicago found that women who earned more than their spouse also reported doing more housework, as if to compensate for violating the social norm outside the home by doubling down inside it. This is exhausting, of course—and the same researchers found that couples with higher-earning wives reported greater marital strife that was more likely to end with the wife quitting work, or in divorce.

One of the next frontiers of gender equality may be less about opportunities for men and women outside the home and more about reconciling the result of those opportunities within it.