programs | Related articles
March 1998, Vol. 121, No. 3
The effect of working wives on the incidence of poverty
in which husbands and wives both work ("working-wife
families") are much less likely to experience
poverty than families in which only husbands work.
However, there are wide variations in the likelihood of
poverty among married-couple families for different
race/ethnic groups. Also, there are wide variations in
the extent to which wives earnings reduce poverty
- Previous detailed studies of economic
hardship among Hispanic families, in particular, have
tended to concentrate on families maintained by women
(with no husband present). This article extends existing
research by focusing on married-couple families and the
extent to which working wives reduce the likelihood of
poverty for Hispanic and non-Hispanic families.
- The Federal Governments official
definition of poverty was originally developed by Mollie
Orshansky for the Social Security Administration in 1964
and revised by Federal interagency committees in 1969 and
1980. Orshansky developed a set of pre-tax levels of
family income, based on the Department of
Agricultures Economy Food Plan, which vary
according to family size and presence and age of
children. Families with incomes below the corresponding
threshold are officially defined as poor. For example, in
1994, a family of four persons, with two children under
18 years, was below the poverty threshold if its income
was less than $15,081.1 The
threshold was somewhat higher for a family of five
persons with three children ($17,686). Adjusted to
reflect inflation, the dollar amounts for poverty
thresholds rise from year to year. These poverty
thresholds are the basis for determining poverty rates,
that is, percentages of persons or families living in
- The importance of wives earner
status. Annual averages for 1994, derived
from the Current Population Survey (CPS), show that
Hispanic and white working-wife families were
approximately one-fourth as likely to be poor as those in
which only husbands worked.2 It is
clear in table 1 that families with working wives
markedly outnumbered families in which the husband was
the only earner. This dampened the average poverty rate
for married-couple families in each ethnic/race group.
- These statistics also show that among
married couples with a working husband, Hispanics had an
overall poverty rate that was more than four times that
for whites. To a small extent, this differential in
poverty ratesthe "ethnic
gap"results from the fact that these Hispanic
families were somewhat more likely than whites to have
only the husband employed. This "earner-composition
effect" should not be overemphasized, however,
because Hispanic households were much more likely than
whites to be poor for each of the husband-wife earner
This excerpt is from an article published in
the March 1998 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full
text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable
Document Format (PDF). See How to view
a PDF file for more information.
Read abstract Download full text in PDF (61K)
1 "Poverty Thresholds by Size of Family and Number
of Related Children: 1994," in Income, Poverty, and
Valuation of Noncash Benefits: 1994, Current Population Reports,
series P60-189 (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the
Census), table 8.
2 "Work Experience of Family Members, by Poverty
Status of Families: 1994, " unpublished tabulations from the
Current Population Survey, Poverty in the United States
series (U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census), table
Related BLS programs
Labor Force Statistics from the
Current Population Survey
- Related Monthly
Labor Review articles
- Experimental poverty
measurement for the 1990s. March 1998.
- Working poor, The. September 1997
- Work schedules of low-educated American
women and welfare reform, The. April 1997.
- What does it mean to be poor in America?
- Spending patterns of families receiving
public assistance. April 1996.
- Effects of intermittent labor force
attachment on women's earnings. September 1995.
- Boom in day care industry the result of
many social changes. August 1995.
- Married mothers' work patterns: the
job-family compromise. June 1994.
- Income and spending patterns of
single-mother families. May 1994.
- Working wives' contribution to family
income. August 1993. (Erratum: April 1994.)
- Working and poor in 1990. December 1992.
- Child-care arrangements and costs. October
- Child-care problems: an obstacle to work.
- Poverty areas and the 'underclass:'
untangling the web. March 1991.
Within Monthly Labor Review Online:
Welcome | Current
Issue | Index | Subscribe | Archives
Exit Monthly Labor Review Online:
BLS Home | Publications & Research Papers