The year that Beth Klingensmith realized she made more than her husband, she remembers joking with him about it, making light of a competition neither took seriously.
There’s no humor in it anymore.
About four years ago, Jim Klingensmith was laid off from a job at the printing company where he had worked for 24 years, and a search for a similar job has proved fruitless. Instead, he’s taken a part-time job at a sporting goods store and is building a business making custom golf clubs.
That’s left Beth Klingensmith, 45, a computer programmer for the state of Colorado, as the couple’s primary breadwinner.
“I’m very glad I didn’t listen to all those teachers in the '70s (who said), ‘Oh, don’t worry, your husband will take care of you. Oh, don’t worry about getting an education,’” she said.
While the stereotype of the male breadwinner is still alive in many people’s minds, experts say the reality is that a growing number of women are earning as much, if not more than, their husbands.
“I don’t think that it’s that odd anymore,” said Claudia Goldin, professor of economics at Harvard University.
In 2007, 25.9 percent of wives were earning more than their husbands in households where both spouses work, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up from 17.8 percent two decades earlier.
Among all married couples, including those where the husband isn’t necessarily working, 33.5 percent of women were making more than their husbands, according to the 2007 data.
The recession has likely exacerbated the trend; nearly three-quarters of the approximately 7 million people who have lost jobs in this recession have been men. The unemployment rate for adult men stood at 10.3 percent in September, compared with 7.8 percent for women.
Working wife, job-hunting husband
Heather Boushey, senior economist with the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, estimates that there are currently about 2 million working women whose husbands are unemployed and looking for work.
While many female breadwinners say they enjoy their jobs and are proud of being able to support the family, some also say it’s difficult, and occasionally heart-wrenching, to balance work responsibilities with time for their kids or other obligations.
Despite such challenges, men and women appear to have grown used to the idea. In a survey conducted for the “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything” project, 65.3 percent of women and 61.2 percent of men strongly agreed with the idea that they are comfortable with women earning more than men in a household.
“The fact that women are working and women are breadwinners is something that both men and women are accepting,” said Boushey, who was involved in the A Woman’s Nation project. “They’re just struggling with how to deal with it.”
Many women say their earning power has been a relief in this recession. After her husband found out he was losing his job in public relations last October, Jessica Flores was able to easily add hours as a mental health therapist so that the family could avoid financial disaster.
“It’s kind of empowering, in a way, to be able to increase my income and provide for my family because I don’t really know what we would do,” said Flores, 39, who lives in Louisville, Ky. “It’s still hard and we’re still barely squeaking by but, hey, at least we’re able to.”
Still, for many, the recession also has amplified the struggle to make ends meet.
Beth Klingensmith, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., said it was hard enough to have to alter their financial plans after her husband lost her job. Now she worries about losing her own job because of the nation's economic woes. Already, she’s been asked to take some furlough days as the state copes with budget constraints.
“We’re doing OK, but there’s absolutely no safety net,’” she said. “If something happens to my job, I cannot imagine.”
Her husband, Jim, 49, is hopeful that his custom-made golf club business will take off soon, allowing him to contribute more toward the couple’s bills. He said that in many ways he likes his new career more than the physically taxing work of running a printing press, but he admits he’s struggled somewhat with the changed circumstances.
“We’re Christians, so for me to not be the breadwinner … it’s not the easiest thing,” he said.
One factor adding to that stress for some families: Even if a woman is the primary breadwinner, her pay and benefits may not be as lucrative as a man’s.
Although women make up virtually 50 percent of the work force, the typical full-time female worker is still making just 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.
A recent study by the Families and Work Institute also found that only 77 percent of female primary breadwinners have access to personal health insurance through their jobs, compared with 91 percent of male breadwinners. Still, the study also found that more than 90 percent of primary breadwinners of both genders had health insurance, just perhaps from another source.