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Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Recession Pushes More Wives Into Workplace

Many American wives became their families’ primary breadwinners during the recession that officially began in late 2007, a new study indicates. The financial strain on families during a time of such severe economic downturn pushed more and more wives into the workplace.

As the number of husbands who lost jobs during the recession rose, so did the number of wives deciding to find jobs or, if they already held part-time jobs, seeking to increase their hours at work, according to Marybeth Mattingly and Kristin Smith, researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, which conducts policy studies on vulnerable children, youth and families.

“Given that three-fourths of recent job losses accrued to men, many married women have increased their role as economic providers,” Mattingly and Smith note in a report just published by the Family Relations journal. “Husbands with both high and low unemployment risk may have experienced job loss,” the report observes.

In observations last December, Smith said that the recession, with job losses “in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing, has affected men’s employment more than women’s.”

Given “the scarcity of jobs” during the recession, the new Mattingly-Smith report explains that the unemployed often “remained jobless for long periods.” Their report cites other research showing that long periods of unemployment can give rise to “a discouraged worker effect, whereby unemployed workers see little opportunity and high costs to job seeking.”

What happens when husbands experience a “discouraged worker effect”? Their wives “will likely find it necessary to adjust their labor force participation, either by entering the labor force or increasing work hours wherever possible,” Mattingly and Smith write.

A woman with a child under 5 was not as likely as others to seek employment, their report says. Otherwise, however, “the number of children in the home did not depress, but rather increased women’s likelihood of entering the labor force.”

The Carsey Institute researchers learned, I should note, that the steps taken by wives whose husbands lost jobs during the recession differed from the steps taken by wives whose husbands lost jobs during an earlier period of greater prosperity. During the recession, these wives sought employment, though during times of prosperity this was not so much the case.

This research suggests that families may respond to a “husband’s job loss differently during recessions,” the report says. It appears that “long and deep recessions” like the current one “force American families to devise strategies to cope with financial strain due to job loss.”

Of course, many wives have sought but not found employment during the recession, the report points out. At the same time, Mattingly and Smith “suspect the recession is pushing many women into jobs that they may not consider during times of prosperity.”

All of which may be further indicators of the struggle families are experiencing. The report states:

“During a deep recession, when jobs are scarce and access to other sources of income is rare, it may be especially challenging for families to meet their needs by substituting wives’ employment when a husband loses his job.”

I spoke with Smith about the implications of this research. “I see this as one more measure of how families are faring,” she said. For couples and families, the recession often meant the loss of their primary breadwinner. Smith pointed to the difficulty families face attempting to make ends meet during such times.

One challenge is that of trying to make ends meet when, in many cases, the wife’s earnings are less than her husband’s were. The Mattingly-Smith report says that “an unanticipated consequence of the recession is the increased number of families relying on wives’ paychecks.” Yet, it says:

“Even if wives are entering the labor force or increasing their work hours, families may still take a hit financially if they rely primarily on wives’ earnings, because wives’ earnings tend to be lower than husbands.’”

Mattingly told me she thinks “this research gives some perspective on how married-couple families coped financially at the onset of the ‘Great Recession,’ when husbands stopped working.” She finds it “noteworthy that wives entered the labor force more often than they did after husbands stopped working during recent prosperity.”

That, Mattingly said, “may mean very different roles for men and women, which may change gender dynamics long after the recession ends.”

That possibility raises a question for future research, according to the Mattingly-Smith report. It remains to be seen how long women who entered the work force during this recession will remain there and, if they remain, what the long-lasting implications of this might prove to be for them, their families and their children.

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