Nearly two-thirds of non-European wives would be banned from settling in Britain under plans from the Government's immigration advisers to introduce new family visa rules.
They recommended that only people with a minimum pre-tax income of £18,600 to £25,700 should be allowed to bring in a spouse from overseas.
The move would only apply to people from outside the EU. It would cut the number of wives, husbands and partners granted visas to join their family – just over 40,000 last year – by between 45 per cent and 63 per cent.
The proposals come as ministers search for ways of meeting the Prime Minister's pledge to reduce net annual migration to Britain from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands.
The Migration Advisory Committee (Mac) suggested its figures on the basis that they were high enough incomes to prevent newcomers relying on state benefits. They could mean up to half of full-time workers – as well as the unemployed and pensioners – being prevented from bringing partners here.
Professor David Metcalf, chairman of the Mac, said ministers had asked it to identify the salary a worker would need to earn to support a spouse or partner "without them becoming a burden on the state".
The lowest figure in the range, £18,600, is the point at which benefits are withdrawn, while the highest figure, £25,700, represents the typical income of a one adult household.
Damian Green, the Immigration minister, said: "Family migrants must not be a burden on the taxpayer. They must be well-enough supported to allow them to participate in the everyday life of the community and integrate here."
But the Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank claimed that the Government would be likely to face a challenge in the courts if it went ahead with the policy.