12/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Who Pays When Families Move?

When the Obamas move to Washington, they will establish a dream household in America's most storied house. They will also follow a tried and true pattern in today's modern, egalitarian-minded capitalist societies. More often than not, men get jobs and the family moves, with wives and children following the male lead.

On close examination, the Obamas' case is unusual. They have a support network of millions of mobilized volunteers (and Facebook fans), a substantial household budget, and a top professional salary for him. All that smoothes the transition for the couple and their children. The move also may not be bad for Michelle's career or her future independence, with all the positive attention she'll receive, and the opportunity to develop her own social network and career contacts.

But, the story reminds us of a more common situation, one that usually combines opportunity with cost, gain and sacrifice, upward mobility and social dislocation. And it illustrates one of the paradoxes of modern families, where cooperation between partners coexists with individual interests.

An idealistic economic theory of couples says that husbands and wives want the most income for the family as a whole, so the career of the higher-earning spouse determines job-related family moves. That's why, some economists say, research shows women are more likely to be out of the labor force after a couple moves.

A pair of negotiation experts just published a paper describing job negotiations as a "two-level game," in which family negotiation is the backdrop for employer-employee bargaining. Men's tendency to hold greater earning power -- combined with powerful ideas supporting male breadwinners and female caregiver -- affects both job and family negotiations, usually not to women's advantage. (They also offer some easier-said-than-done suggestions for women in job negotiations.)

The logic is rational. Data from families in the 1990s showed that married couples that moved experience income growth of about $4,000 over a six-year period while those who didn't move had no income change. But the gains were driven by men's income - the husbands gained an average of $5,000 and the wives lost an average $1,000. The net gain is for the family. But the study also found that even in couples with a high-earning wife, migration is not associated with increased income for wives. Even when it's not "rational" economically, couples are much more likely to move for the husband's career. The gender logic within families is often more powerful than the economic logic.

If you think it's better for women to take care of children (and clean houses), this all makes sense. If couples stay together, cooperate fully, and share everything equally, then this pattern would not contribute to inequality between husbands and wives. But if divorce is common, resources and labor are contested within families, and work-family decisions are negotiated between unequal partners, then we need to see job moves as one important way that gender inequality is reinforced.