But wait—wouldn’t you expect the chief breadwinner to be more possessive of the family funds? When the wives earn most of the income, don’t they spend it on themselves just like men do?
Actually, no, according to a new study co-authored by Fordham economics professor Subha Mani, PhD. When both men and women were paid to perform a simple task, women were still more likely to spend the money in a self-abnegating way, the study found.
“Of course, when people do put in effort, they do feel more entitled towards their earnings,” Mani said. “In general, there is this entitlement effect, but it’s just much stronger for men than for women.”
The study has bearing on economic policies in the developing world, where some governments have started treating wives as household decision makers because they’re more likely to spend money on their children’s health and education.
“The general consensus in the literature is that women care more about the household,” Mani said. “They are more altruistic; they’re less competitive; they’re far more egalitarian.”
But few studies in this area have parsed income within households to find out where it came from and how the source of the money might affect spending decisions, Mani said. Hence the new study, authored by Mani and her husband, Utteeyo Dasgupta, who is now a professor at Wagner College on Staten Island and a senior researcher at Fordham’s Center for International Policy Studies.
In 2012, they recruited 210 lower-income married couples in New Delhi, India, and randomly chose half the men and half the women to separate piles of chips by color. (The task was kept simple because it would mess up the study if someone failed.) In return, the participants received 200 rupees that they could spend either on household food or clothing for themselves.
The other half of participants got the money, and the spending choice, without having to perform the task.
After comparing the buying choices of men who earned the money and those who didn’t, and making the same comparison for women, Mani and Dasgupta found that men were far less likely—by 15 percentage points—to buy the household food.
“This difference is really large and significant,” Mani said. “That’s essentially the key result, that women tend to remain altruistic, and that whether they put in effort or no effort [to earn money], they continue to remain more caring compared to men.”
“The entitlement kicks in for everybody, but compared to men they’re still doing much better,” she said.
The finding could help debunk any arguments that expanding women’s work opportunities outside the home will make them less caring toward their families, she said. It also buttresses arguments in favor of designating women as recipients of government aid.
But also worth studying, she said, is the role of nonmonetary incentives—like recognition and status within the household—in swaying spending decisions.
“It’s not just money income that may influence how we behave,” Mani said. “There may be other ways in which [women are]not as egalitarian. Maybe we’re egalitarian when it comes to money but maybe we’re not egalitarian when it comes to status. Human beings are complicated, and those situations make the decisionmaking process more complex.”