Census Bureau: Couples Lie About Their Income When the Woman Makes More Than the Man

Mid adult woman using mobile phone while leaving for work with family in background

The U.S. Census Bureau has released new research that claims to demonstrate “the importance of understanding societal norms.” When a wife earns more than her husband, researchers found, she will report that she earns less than she actually does. Additionally, the man in this situation will report that he earns more than he actually does. Marta Murray-Close, who co-authored the study, called this a “critical finding,” saying that this research “adds to the understanding of gender norms and the quality of income statistics.”

But why might a man whose wife earns more then he does lie about his income? Is it the big bad patriarchy rearing its ugly head yet again? Jessica Valenti, of The Guardian, says yes! “Even in one of feminism’s most powerful moments, women still internalize messages about what is acceptable female behavior,” Valenti writes. “Even for progressive men,” she continues, “there’s a difference between believing in or fighting for equality in the public sphere, and living by those values in your own home.”

In other words, men can’t help but oppress women, and women can’t help but be oppressed.

But what if — and try to stay with me here because this is a truly radical notion — this is less about oppression and gender “norms” and more about gender roles. What happens to a man’s instinct to protect and provide for his family when his wife is actually the one earning the dough? What happens to a woman’s instinct to nurture and care for her family while under the protective care of her husband when she’s out in the workforce and someone else is caring for her kids? Perhaps these findings point less to some awful regressive socially constructed norms, and more to the inherent disconnect between female breadwinners and gender instincts.

Now, obviously, I think that women should be allowed to do whatever they want when it comes to their career and their childcare choices. There are lots of reasons why a wife may need (or want) to work, and why her job might pay more than her husband’s — including that she might be better educated and harder working than he is. But none of this negates the fact that men are hardwired to be protectors and providers, and women are hardwired to be nurturers and caregivers. Women (and men) are free to go against their hardwiring if they want to, but that doesn’t mean the hardwiring isn’t there.

The research itself doesn’t go into why men and women are lying about their income, it only states that — in some cases — they are. That doesn’t stop everyone — including the researchers themselves — from speculating. Misty Heggeness, senior advisor for evaluations & experiments in research and methodology at the Census Bureau, says that“societal expectations about the roles played in married-couple relationships may be a factor in what people report for their earnings.” She continues, “Social norms can drive expectations and behavior.” But so can instincts.

The only thing that makes this study worthwhile — and the actual reason it was done in the first place — is the information it provides the Census Bureau about the accuracy of its income statistics. “Wage and earnings data underlie a majority of federal statistics on income, inequality and poverty, and are critical for understanding the pulse of the nation and overall well-being of individuals in society,” explains Bruce Meyer, economist at the Census Bureau and McCormick Foundation professor at the University of Chicago Harris Public Policy School. Now the Census Bureau knows that reported income may not match actual income, and that may prove useful in a variety of circumstances. But anything else — all this stuff about gender and social “norms” — is speculation, pure and simple.

If we continue to deny that men and women actually are different — and that they are inherently inclined toward different things — then any time anyone expresses a desire “typical” of their sex, we have to tie ourselves in knots trying to explain why that might be. But William of Ockham — of Occam’s razor fame — would disagree. The simplest solution is usually the right one. And the simplest solution here is this: the reason men keep acting like providers and women keep acting like nurturers is because they are naturally inclined toward those roles.

No one actually knows why people in families where the woman makes more than the man lie about their income. So this survey says nothing at all about gender, or society, or norms, or roles. It’s just some numbers not matching up with some other numbers. But when even the researchers are dabbling in feminist theory, somebody’s got to push back a little. Why not me?