There’s this recent study that shows that in countries with higher divorce risk, married women work more hours than in countries with lower divorce risk. The same study looks at how married men work more when the tax rate is lower, and work less when the tax rate is higher. The study, using data from the US and Europe, was done by a trio of economists, and can be read here, and it is cited in Freakonomics here.

The authors were curious about why people in the US work more than those in Europe. They start with this: on average, people in the US work more than people in Europe—one study shows the difference is 30 percent more; other studies show how little vacation time, paid sick leave, or family leave that the US has relative to European countries—although the current recession may end up reducing these differences.

Sure enough, divorce rates plus tax rates told the story. Even cooler, the explanation was much clearer when they divided their data up into menfolk and womenfolk. Men’s labor varied with tax rates, though women’s did not. When tax rates were relatively low, as in the United States, men worked more hours, when tax rates were relatively high, as in Belgium, men worked fewer hours. No such variation existed for women. Meanwhile women’s labor varied with divorce rates, but not men’s. So high divorce rates, more women’s work hours–as in the USA. Low divorce rates, fewer women’s work hours–as in Ireland. No such pattern existed for men; divorce rates didn’t matter.

The authors interpret their results like this:

We believe [women’s work pattern] is because marriage provides an implicit social insurance since the spouses are able to share their income. However, if divorce rates are higher in a society, women have a higher incentive to obtain work experience in case they find themselves alone in the future. The reason the incentive is higher is because in our data, women happen to be the second earner in the household more often than men. European women anticipate not getting divorced as often and hence find less reason to insure themselves by working as much as American women.

And the study was covered with enthusiasm in Freakonomics, “Why do American Women Work More…?” A tour of coverage in the blogosphere highlighted the “woman’s predicament” foregrounded by this interesting study, here and here, for example. (A counter example that included a look at both sides of the equation is here.)

I liked the study. Still, the way the study gets talked about you’d think it was only about women’s behavior, not about men’s behavior, too, or about what it means for humans. Men did not respond to divorce rates but did respond to tax rates. Yet there was no curiosity about that. Men were being taken for granted. And so was the logic of labor markets, marriage, and patriarchy. And so was the economic model that treats as “normal” (and normative) that people will maximize income unless policy has messed things up.

You hardly even notice that it is happening, but this is the kind of thing that happens all the time. In this story, men’s behavior gets treated as if it is “natural.” The baseline is that men are expected to respond to tax rates, and are normal because they do so. And now we have to figure out those puzzling women. They are kind of like men in that they go to work, but they don’t work the same as men. What’s up with that? When it comes to labor market behavior, men are treated as the “normal” or “control” category and women as the “experimental” category.

So who cares? I’ll tell you: if you give yourself time to interpret men’s as well as women’s behavior in this study you start to understand what men and women have in common. Perhaps from this view it will emerge for you as has for me that this study looks like it is about “safety nets.” The role of the government in many European countries has been to provide basic security for all citizens. That’s where higher taxes over there go–universal health care, child-care, more generous retirement and unemployment benefits, and other social services and income supports. Lower taxes mean fewer public services and not much of a safety net.

So in this study I see marriage as another kind of safety net–as do most of those who interpreted the study. The safety net interpretation is one with deep roots. The breadwinner/homemaker model was the 19th century version of “social safety net” complete with a “family wage” for the breadwinner man to support a homemaker woman to take care of home production as well as to be a live-in psychologist to the breadwinner, a gentle voice who would soften the angry blows of the harsh world outside the home. (That’s how they talked about it then.) And even though not all families had a family wage, the model was idealized and seared into social and economic policy, especially in the United States. In fact so much so that it continues to play a role today, as the US marriage movement highlights.

Though the traditional imagery hangs around, the reality hasn’t existed for nearly 40 years. We don’t have a family wage anymore; instead, families keep their heads above water in the US by having two earners.

So, watch out for your implicit comparison group. Watch out for what gets cast as normal. Ideas about normal can get in the way of seeing possibility, and seeing things as they really are, or at least seeing things from more than one point of view.

The study wasn’t talked about in terms of the unifying theme of safety netting. It talked about a story of how “women are different.” Look, women aren’t like men, they don’t respond to taxes the way men do. And the way the men’s side of the story is told—well it isn’t really told but implied—is that men constitute the “comparison group” the natural worker, who responds to the labor market in the way that “we expect.” What I expect, as I think about this study, is that men and women will feel more ease when there is more of a safety net for all.

-Virginia Rutter