By Leslie McCall, Stone Center Senior Scholar 

Spotlight on Data

It’s well known that living with a spouse or partner has many potential economic benefits. Sharing family resources can lessen the hardship of income loss due to unemployment, illness, old age, and the need to care for a family member or to seek additional education and training. It can also significantly raise an individual’s family income beyond what they earn in the workplace. I call this raise the “economic benefit” of living with a partner.

But are the benefits the same for those in the bottom 50 percent of the U.S. earnings distribution as for those in the top 10 percent? And do men and women reap the same benefits of living together as a couple? (At this time our data examine only female/male couples.)

In new research I coauthored with Deirdre Bloome and Derek Burk, we try to answer these questions through a new measure of self-reliance. This measure adds to current discussions about inequality by combining information about rates of marriage and cohabitation — the most common measures of the potential to share financial resources with partners — with information about how much each partner actually contributes to the family’s position in the income distribution.1 This measure is easily broken down by gender and earnings levels to identify inequalities between men and women and between families at different points in the earnings and income distributions.

 [Figure 1]


Using this measure, we find very large differences between where single and partnered women fall in the income distribution. 

To appreciate the magnitude of this difference, let’s look at single and partnered women who have very similar earnings, as shown on the x-axis in Figure 1. In 1970, both single and partnered women in the exact middle of the earnings distribution of all women — the 5th decile — earned on average $16,800 per year (in 2010 dollars) from their own employment.2 However, partnered women’s total family income was more than two and half times larger than single women’s ($59,700 versus $22,300). The y-axis in Figure 1 shows the rankings of these incomes on a scale from 1 to 100.3

On average, partnered women ranked 46 percentage points higher in the income distribution than single women whose earnings from their own employment were roughly the same. Perhaps surprisingly, the greatest gaps occurred within the top half of the distribution (except at the very top). In essence, a single woman and a partnered woman who earn the same amount found themselves in substantially different economic classes.

Did this situation improve over time? We found that the gap in income rankings between partnered and single women declined by 25 percent on average, from 46 points in 1970 to 33 points in 2010. And the gaps in 2010 were greatest at the bottom of the distribution: single women with zero or low earnings have not made much progress climbing up the income ladder, and they face the greatest inequality, compared with partnered women who earn the same amount. One reason for this trend has to do with the rise in earnings inequality among women: the gains in women’s earnings have been much greater at the top than below.

What about men? Do men who earn the same amount have different incomes depending on whether they are single or partnered? In other words, is the difference between where single people and couples fall on the income distribution simply a matter of how many people are in the family unit and not a person’s gender? 

[Figure 2]


We know from previous research that men do not benefit financially as much as women from cohabitation and marriage (though they do benefit from their female partner’s domestic labor), but there has been a lot of speculation about how much this has changed with the rise of women’s employment. Our measure helps to pin this down, as shown in Figure 2.

In 1970, the average gap in income ranks between single and partnered men (with the same earnings from employment) stood at only 11 percentage points, less than a quarter of women’s average gap of 46 points. The average gap for men increases by half to 17 points in 2010 — reflecting the increasing importance of women’s earnings in determining men’s class position — but this gap is still only half the size of women’s average gap in 2010. Interestingly, the men’s gap tends to be greatest in the lower-middle of the distribution, in both years.

In short, when it comes to self-reliance, sharing earnings with a partner continues to matter a lot less for men than for women — but the benefits are stronger for those men in the lower-middle class who have seen their own earnings stagnate or decline in real terms over time. And both men and women who are single and at the top of the earnings distribution face the lowest inequalities related to their partnership status.

In subsequent posts, we will examine some of the patterns that underlie trends in self-reliance by taking a closer look at (1) trends in self-reliance adjusted for family size; (2) trends in partnership; and (3) trends in the similarity of earnings levels among partnered men and women. And we will do so again for men and women at the bottom, middle, and top of the distribution, revealing further patterns of inequality that have been hard to discern using the methods and measures of prior research.  

Related Research: Economic Self-Reliance and Gender Inequality Between U.S. Men and Women, 1970–2010

Derek Burk and Deirdre Bloome are coauthors on this research project and blog post. Andréa Becker, a Ph.D. student in sociology at The Graduate Center, contributed to this blog post.


1 We focus on actual economic contributions in order to describe existing economic circumstances (i.e., not the potential economic circumstances that would result from forming or dissolving a partnership).

2 The 1970 data point is based on pooled 1969, 1970, and 1971 earnings and income data. Similarly, the 2010 data point is based on pooled 2009, 2010, and 2011 data .

3 Why is there a difference between employment earnings and total family income — hereafter simply “income” — for single women? Income also includes money from sources other than earnings from employment, such as investments. Disparities also remain substantial after adjusting for family size, to account for the financial costs of additional family members, which we will discuss in the next post.