PhotoThe Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, but for many families the hard times have continued. Household income, in fact, has declined in the three and a half years since the recession ended.

For many families both the husband and wife must continue to work in order to make ends met. New research from the University of New Hampshire shows the contribution of employed wives to total family income holding steady at 47 percent, which is its highest level in decades.

“If history is a good guide, it is likely that wives’ share of total family earnings will not return to pre-recession levels, but rather, the Great Recession will serve to propel wives’ contributions higher. It is likely that wives will remain in the labor force even after their husbands return to work, as many families have lost ground due to diminished savings, housing values, and retirement accounts," said Kristin Smith, assistant professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.  "Thus, it is critical to pay attention to the implications of wives as breadwinners for families and the workplace.”

Trend began in 2008

Smith said researchers saw a big jump in wives' contributions to family income early in the recession. From 2008 to 2009, employed wives’ contribution to total family earnings jumped from 45 percent to 47 percent -- the largest single-year increase during the past 23 years -- where it held steady in 2010 and 2011.

“The massive job losses during the 18 months of the Great Recession, primarily in male-dominated industries such as manufacturing and construction, coupled with sluggish job growth during the recovery, have left many families with lower earnings and have placed an unprecedented importance on wives’ earnings to keep families afloat,” Smith said.

She says the Great Recession, in particular, substantially accelerated the trend of an increased reliance on employed wives’ earnings.

Previous recessions

Smith also looked at previous recessions and found that they substantially accelerate the trend of increased reliance on wives’ earnings. In all three recessions since 1988, annual increases in employed wives’ share of total family earnings rose substantially.

Smith's research also reveals another detail. The reliance on wives’ earnings is particularly important in working class families, which she sees as falling further behind while much of the rest of the country recovers. Smith found that employed wives’ share of total family earnings is higher and more responsive to economic downturns when the husband has a high school degree or less compared with a college degree.

She wants to see policy changes that can help lessen this stress on the working class family.

“Policies to support working families, such as paid sick leave and paid family medical leave, affordable quality child care, livable wages and measures that increase workplace flexibility, could help reduce the work and family conflict that many men and women experience,” she said.

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