Is There a Male Breadwinner Norm? The Hazards of Inferring Preferences from Marriage Market Outcomes

51 Pages Posted: 20 Aug 2018

See all articles by Ariel Binder

Ariel Binder

U.S. Census Bureau

David A. Lam

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

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Abstract

Spousal characteristics such as age, height, and earnings are often used in social science research to infer social preferences. For example, a "male taller" norm has been inferred from the fact that fewer wives are taller than their husbands than would occur with random matching. The large proportion of husbands out-earning their wives has similarly been cited as evidence for a "male breadwinner" norm. This paper argues that it is difficult and potentially misleading to infer social preferences about an attribute from observed marital sorting on that attribute.We show that positive assortative matching on an attribute is consistent with a wide variety of underlying preferences, including "female taller" or "female breadwinner" norms. Given prevailing gender gaps in height and earnings, positive sorting implies it will be rare for women to be taller than, or earn more than, their husbands – even if there is no underlying preference for shorter or lower-earning wives. In an empirical application, we show that simulations which sort couples positively on permanent earnings can largely replicate the observed distribution of spousal earnings differences in US Census data. Further, we show that an apparent sharp drop in the distribution function at the point where the wife begins to out-earn the husband results from a mass of couples earning identical incomes, a mass which we argue is not evidence of a norm for higher-earning husbands.

Keywords: economics of marriage, gender gap, economics of the family

JEL Classification: D10, J12, J16

Suggested Citation

Binder, Ariel and Lam, David A., Is There a Male Breadwinner Norm? The Hazards of Inferring Preferences from Marriage Market Outcomes. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3234216 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3234216

Ariel Binder (Contact Author)

U.S. Census Bureau ( email )

4600 Silver Hill Road
Washington, DC 20233
United States

David A. Lam

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor ( email )

500 S. State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
United States

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