Couples Fudge Earnings When Wives Outearn Husbands

 Andrew Soergel

WOMEN EARN MORE MONEY than their husbands in nearly a quarter of U.S. marriages, according to a new analysis from the Census Bureau. But when they do, husbands are statistically more likely to overreport their own incomes while women undercut their pocketed earnings.

In an effort to explore societal expectations while also looking to improve the bureau's earnings methodology, researchers compared what married couples told surveyors about their earnings with what their employers formally filed with the IRS.

In other words, the report's authors compared what survey respondents said they made with what their employers actually paid them.

There are some caveats to the methodology – notably, that the report solely focuses on different-sex married couples and that more informal earnings accrued "off the books," so to speak, usually go unreported to the IRS.

But the researchers ultimately found that when a wife outearns her husband – which researchers described as a "nontraditional" earnings situation – both husbands and wives stretched the truth when sharing their salary information.

Husbands who were outearned by their wives reported earnings nearly 3 percentage points higher than the salary on their tax filing. Wives who earned more than their husbands, meanwhile, underreported their own earnings by 1.5 percentage points.

"Take a husband in Fargo, N.D., who lives in a household where the wife earns more. If he reported annual earnings of $30,000, he would tell the Census Bureau he earned more – an average $30,870 during that same year," Misty Heggeness, the branch chief of the Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division at the Census Bureau and a co-author of the report, wrote on Monday in one of the bureau's blog posts. "Let us say, for example, that the same man's wife earns $40,000. On average, her reported earnings would be equivalent to $39,400, around $600 less than she actually earned."

The report also found that both men and women were statistically more likely to "inflate the earnings of nontraditional husbands" and "deflate the earnings of nontraditional wives." Heggeness warned that "self-reported earnings data could become less reliable if individuals continue to be influenced by social norms in their reporting," particularly as "nontraditional marriages become more common."

"The desire to view or present oneself in a positive light can lead survey respondents to over-report socially favored, and under-report socially disfavored, attitudes, circumstances, and behaviors," according to the report. "One lesson from these findings is that survey reports of even seemingly objective, clearly measurable economic outcomes may suffer from measurement error due not just to gaps in respondents' knowledge of the outcome but also to gaps between their beliefs or values and the circumstances they are asked to describe."

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Andrew Soergel
04 September, 2018
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