Minimum standard for a male breadwinner

“How Society Pays When Women’s Work Is Unpaid” is an interesting New York Times article.

Cultural change is also important, [Melinda] Gates said.

She recalled being unhappy about the long commute to her oldest daughter’s preschool. Mr. Gates, then chief executive of Microsoft, said he would drive their daughter two days a week.

“Moms started going home and saying to their husbands, ‘If Bill Gates can drive his daughter, you better darn well drive our daughter or son,’ ” Ms. Gates said. “If you’re going to get behavior change, you have to role-model it publicly.”

In other words, she married a guy who brought $80 billion into the household, but ended up being unhappy with the division of labor in the household.

A subtext in the article and in reader comments is that men are able to earn more money because women do “unpaid work” around the house. This is kind of a cornerstone of the American family law system, i.e., that the lower-earning spouse somehow contributed to the higher-earning spouse’s ability to earn (successful women who pay child support and alimony to ex-husbands so that they can have sex with younger/hotter women end up not being too happy about this theory), though it is no longer an assumption in Germany.

Certainly there do seem to be a lot of high-earning people with spouses who don’t work for wages. But maybe that is simply due to a combination of high tax rates for those marginal earnings and also the fact that increasing after-tax household earnings by 5 percent won’t significantly improve living standards. (And typically sufficient cash can be extracted through litigation following a divorce. See how Jamie Cooper-Hohn collected about $500 million from the English courts without working for wages.) Consider Sheryl Sandberg. She earned over $1 billion, mostly from Facebook shareholders, without a stay-at-home spouse. Judith Faulkner‘s husband has continued to work as a physician (source) and that hasn’t stopped Ms. Faulkner from earning nearly $3 billion by building Epic Systems. Hillary Clinton would perhaps argue that Judith Faulkner could have made a lot more if she had been a guy, but does anyone argue that she would have earned more if her husband had quit his doctor job?

New York Times readers don’t seem to have much doubt as to the potential earnings boost from an adult at home 9-5. Here’s a reader comment:

if the man is able to gather assets into the marriage because he has his wife at home doing his laundry, cooking his meals, and caring for his children, the assets reasonably and ethically belong to both parties. If he wants to negotiate a rate of pay with her, wherein he pays her for all the things she does for the family, then it would make more sense to talk about who earned what if it becomes time to divide the property.

I agree with this comment’s second point, which is not too different from what happens in some European jurisdictions where lifetime alimony is not available. If a couple makes the decision that one will stay at home, the working partner puts money into the stay-at-home partner’s retirement account. This way they don’t spend 100% of their assets (and their children’s assets) on legal fees to have a judge figure out what is the fair division of assets and income post-divorce.

The first point raises a question, however. I responded with

Is there a basis for the assumption that a stay-at-home spouse increases a person’s earnings? Do companies find out that an employee has a stay-at-home spouse and say “Wow, here’s your fat pay raise”? In nearly every part of the U.S. a child can be parked with the government until 3 pm and then be seamlessly handed off to an “after-school program” until dinner time. If a child is in school or in an after-school program from 8 am to 6 pm, how does the presence or absence of a stay-at-home spouse affect the earnings of a worker?

You mention laundry. There are services that will pick up and drop off laundry. You mention cooking meals. Americans have been known to survive on take-out or pre-prepared meals from supermarkets.

If you’re right on the impossibility of making money without having a stay-at-home spouse, how is it that single people are able to earn significant money? Who does their laundry and cooks their meals?

Of course it is nice to have a wonderful home environment and there is a lot of value delivered to a family by an adult who enhances that environment, but I am not sure how we get from that to the assumption that this affects the earnings of a full-time worker who is part of that household.

Readers: What do you think? Does consuming a home-cooked meal enable you to earn more money? Does sleeping in an elaborate suburban home enable you to earn more money than if you lived in a smaller full-service apartment? Can you earn more money if you have a stay-at-home spouse doing child care compared to if kids are parked in commercial care?

[Personally I was at my most productive when I lived in a modest rental apartment and consumed most meals from restaurants and/or corporate cafeterias. For one thing, I didn’t spend half of my life on the phone with Whirlpool and GE trying to get appliances repaired!]


  1. PN

    March 7, 2016 @ 3:53 pm


    Philip: totally off-topic, so please feel free to delete. Thoughts on:

    Liberal arts professor argues grade inflation is basically fine; suggests we should perhaps get rid of grades altogether.

  2. Smartest Woman on the Internet

    March 7, 2016 @ 4:42 pm


    OT: I haven’t been to Harvard Square in 25 years, but what the hell is going on in Cambridge?

    NYT, 03/06/16 – Heroin Epidemic Increasingly Seeps Into Public View

    …Cambridge, a city of 107,000 just west of Boston, has the highest number of overdose deaths from heroin and prescription pain pills in Massachusetts…

    …the City of Cambridge spent $400,000 to buy and install Harvard Square’s first free-standing public toilet.

  3. The Practical Conservative

    March 7, 2016 @ 5:02 pm


    I suspect the healthcare software executive’s husband remaining in healthcare was helpful in her line of work.

  4. Tom

    March 7, 2016 @ 6:52 pm


    Did Bill Gates become more productive by marrying Melinda? From what it sounds like, no.

    It should be easy to estimate the value added by your spouse performing household services. Simply sum up the costs for the corresponding outsourced services.

    It would, however, considerably surprise me if Melinda Gates or other spouses of the rich themselves did the housekeeping themselves (even in the main mansion); one might even question whether they always pay for their half of the costs of upkeep.

    In short, there are probably other benefits to marriage than the purely economic for high wage earners.

  5. Steffi

    March 8, 2016 @ 3:26 am


    Our family (2 adults and a 9yo kid) doesn’t have this kind of problems. My man works for the family and earns money, I work for the family around the house. It’s also a full-time job and more, I think it’s not about the money as it’s about respect and care. I respect his work and fortunately he respects mine. Given my home stay I also take care of our kid. Everybody’s happy separate and together.

  6. Pjay

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:55 am


    Confusing an implicit wage for contributing to the house hold with an entitlement (alimony) is absurd.

    My ex=wife never cooked, refused to clean the house and argued all the time. She detracted from my ability to earn a great wage. Could I penalize her for that after divorcing her? No – I had to pay her alimony, to de facto reward her from detracting from my ability to earn.

  7. Jack

    March 8, 2016 @ 8:58 am


    The best approximation of the value of the non-working spouse’s labor is the cost of hiring someone else to do the non-working spouse’s job — driving here to there, making dinner, cleaning, etc.

  8. Smartest Woman on the Internet

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:35 am


    @Pjay: My ex=wife never cooked, refused to clean the house and argued all the time.

    Didn’t her unpleasant personality reveal itself before you married her?

    Pundits and some women complain about women not being recognized (paid) for their contributions to the household. Men, too, contribute to the household w/o compensation – protection & security, handywork, lawn care to name a few.

  9. reha gur

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:09 am


    On the other hand… If you want the marriage to work, the prevailing wisdom is that you share the chores/cleaning/laundry etc.

    This advice would seemingly apply to all those that can’t afford full-time staff at their manor.

  10. Scientist

    March 8, 2016 @ 12:48 pm

  11. George

    March 8, 2016 @ 1:29 pm


    The happiest couples do NOT share housework.

    “The best approximation of the value of the non-working spouse’s labor is the cost of hiring someone else …”

    No. The home-maker is usually doing those things because she likes being a home-maker. She is not a maid. Often many of the things she does are not that valuable to the husband, and she is doing them for herself.

  12. superMike

    March 8, 2016 @ 5:33 pm


    The only reason for Bill Gates to drive his children to school is so that later in life they can pretend to be normal people. “My driver took me everywhere” is a sure path to ostracism if you ever have to relate to %99 of the population. Gates is giving away the billions so they won’t live in a cocoon forever.

  13. NeKto

    March 8, 2016 @ 5:49 pm


    Data scientists analyzes big data, concludes that labor market, along with everything else, disadvantages women:

    Mostly intelligent commentary:

    We will never achieve gender equality until men have an equal opportunity to non-consensually have three kids by three different heart surgeons and thereby earn as much as a heart surgeon. Somehow that got lost in the big data analysis.

  14. Sam

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:07 pm


    Smartest woman –

    My ex wife was nothing but nice and polite before we were married. Then after the first kid it was I’m not your maid Im not a nanny and I need more money and a bigger house. Now she uses my child support payments to pay a live-in nanny to clean the house. The point being sometimes people can fake it long enough to get what they want.

  15. Sam

    March 8, 2016 @ 11:58 pm


    Also, apparently men who do more chores have less sex with their wives:

  16. reha gur

    March 9, 2016 @ 11:57 am


    My wife read the article you referred to and doesn’t want to do any chores now.

    My wife read the article you referred to and now doesn’t want me to do any chores.

    Thanks a lot!

    Reha, satisfied but living in a unkempt, stinky, dirty house.

  17. superMike

    March 9, 2016 @ 1:03 pm


    @reha: We need an uber for housecleaners. We can all make extra money by cleaning each others’ houses while hiring people do do our housework. More income/more sex, everybody wins.

  18. It's About the Money

    March 11, 2016 @ 11:17 am


    ” The point being sometimes people can fake it long enough to get what they want.”

    For $220 million, they can fake being gay for a few years.

  19. ianf

    March 11, 2016 @ 1:33 pm


    Oh, come on, that’s not news. It would be if Portia de Rossi changed her gender, undergone the full sex reassignment operations, then been kicked out of the marriage because Ellen doesn’t service men or something. Besides, this from a site where “Other Hanging Laundry They Like” are listicles like “13 Times We Wanted to Be Taylor Swift’s Cat” (cat breeds not disclosed).

  20. Pjay

    March 11, 2016 @ 3:51 pm


    @ Sam


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