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What’s a Husband Worth? Thirty-Four Minutes a Day

JULY 18, 2011

When I divorced many years ago, I quickly tired of friends’ inquires as to how I was coping with all the household chores. The only difference to my workload post-marriage was that I was left with less laundry to do. New research suggests that being married, rather than single, buys women an extra 34 minutes a day of (gloriously) free time but increases the amount of work they do in the home.

Economists believe that one of the benefits to marriage is that two individuals are able to exploit the gains from trade in the production of household goods. If I am more productive at keeping the house clean than I am at minding children and you are more productive at minding children than you are at keeping the house clean, then if we marry I can clean the house and you can mind the children.  We both specialize in what we are good at, and, in theory, are better off than we would be if we were not married and each one of us had to clean and mind the children in our respective homes.

Gains from trade can be realized in one of two ways. The first is that the household produces more goods – the house is cleaner and the children better cared for. The second is that the increase in productivity allows everyone to work a little less – I clean while you put the kids to bed and then we both collapse on the sofa and watch a movie.

This new paper uses data on single and married adults from five years of the American Time Use Survey (2003 to 2008) and finds that married women in higher-income households work 33 to 34 minutes less each workday either in the home or in the workforce than do comparable higher-income single women. The opposite is true for women in lower-income households. Those women work 15–34 minutes more each day than do comparable single women if they have children and 37–48 minutes more if they don’t.

There is no gain in terms of free time for men who are married, but married men in higher-income households spend an extra 13 minutes a day working out of the home (and for wages) if they don’t have children and 35 minutes if they do. Men who are in the lower-income bracket work significantly more if they are married: 83 minutes more if they have no children and 110 minutes more if they have children.

The truth is that even though married women have more free time they are also doing more housework than their single counterparts – the big effect that shows more time spent on leisure comes from spending less time in the labor market. If we only look at women with children we see that having a spouse in the home increases the amount of time a woman spends cleaning on weekdays, by 31-41 minutes and increases the time she spends cooking, by 41-50 minutes, and running errands, 8-11 minutes.

So my experience is not that uncommon – having a spouse increases a woman’s workload in the home production. But there are still gains from trade since overall she is working less; she is just exploiting her comparative advantage in home production while her spouse exploits his in the labor force.

The reason for this comparative advantage has nothing to do with women’s extraordinary powers of folding laundry – it has everything to do with fact that men can earn more on the labor market.

The problem in my marriage was that my husband exploited his comparative advantage in reading the newspaper over all other household tasks. I suspect that it is a common problem in marriages that individuals do not understand the concept of comparative advantage (that says the people should do the jobs they are good at relative to other jobs) and instead rely on absolute advantage (in which people do the jobs they are better at than their spouse).

Just because I am better at cooking and cleaning doesn’t mean I should do both jobs – not in a perfect economic model of trade. And by the way, arguing that your spouse should wash the dishes because she hates the job less than you do is just lame.

* Vernon, Victoria (2010). “Marriage: for love, for money…and for time?” Review of the Economics of the Household vol. 8 (4).

This post originally appeared on my old blog at Dollars and Sex at Big Think

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