Why Do Married Men Earn So Much More Than Everyone Else?

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The gender pay gap is a well-documented artifact of the U.S. income distribution. In 2018, women earn about 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. On an annual basis, women who work full time earn an average of $41,977 compared with an average of $52,146 for men.

But men are not all treated the same either. A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis indicates that single (never married) men earn about the same wage and salary income as single and married women. Married men, however, earn more than any of these other groups — by a lot.

The following chart from the St. Louis Fed report by research officer Guillaume Vandenbroucke illustrates the vast gap between married men and the other groups.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


One obvious conclusion is that the received wisdom that women’s salaries are lower because they take time off from work to have children is not supported by the data. If it were true, we would expect to see higher incomes for single women (and single men). What we see instead is a nearly identical trajectory for married and single women and single men.

Vandenbroucke points out that the data do not imply that being married raises men’s wages. He explains:

It might be that men with higher wages are more likely to marry; therefore, the average married man earns a higher wage than the average single man.

Men often marry later than women, so there are relatively few married men in their 20s. This explains why … the difference in wages is less pronounced earlier in life: The average male worker in his 20s is more likely single than married.

Instead of asking why women are paid less than men — although not less than single men — perhaps the right question is why married men are paid so much more than everyone else.

The National Partnership on Women & Families noted recently that the gender pay gap exists regardless of education level and that 38% of the gap “is unaccounted for, leading researchers to conclude that factors such as discrimination and unconscious bias continue to affect women’s wages.”

Does the finding that married men are paid so much more than everyone else indicate a bias favoring married men? We can all make some guesses about why and how that may be true, but can we back it up with data? That may be trickier.

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