‘Breadwinner Moms’ Now Head 40 Percent of US Households
A woman works in a Walgreens in Hollywood, California in January. Four in ten households in the United States with children under the age of 18 now have women as the only or primary "breadwinner," according to new research. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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A growing number of households in the United States with children under the age of 18 have mothers who are either the only or primary breadwinner of the family.
The share of such households has grown to a record 40 percent in 2011, compared with 11 percent in 1960, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
The big number includes a big difference.
The 40 percent includes 5.1 million married mothers, who have a higher income than their husbands; on the other hand, the number includes 8.6 million who are single mothers.
Families with the mother as the breadwinner have a median total family income of nearly $80,000, while families with a single mother have a median income of $23,000.
“It is clear from the data that we ran that in those two parent households where you’ve got a married mother who out-earns their husband, those are some of the most affluent family households in the country,” Kim Parker, co-author of the report, and associate director of the Pew Social and Demographic Trends Project, told U.S. News & World Report.
The gap between the female breadwinners–single mothers and married women–is confirmed in an April report from the New York Women’s Foundation, which found that single mothers are among the most economically insecure.
Nearly 40 percent of the 300,000 single mother households in New York live in poverty, compared to 13 percent of two-parent households with children, the foundation found. Many of the single mothers (86 percent) are Latino or black.
Trend Accelerated by Recession
There was already a trend of women becoming more educated and entering the workforce, with more women holding bachelor degrees than men, but the trend was accelerated by the recession.
“Part of what’s happening is that more men have been getting laid off and are having difficulty finding work,” Sarah Jane Glynn, an analyst with the Center for American Progress, told the Washington Post, noting that the number of married wives who are sole earners has increased since 2007. “And with the way the recovery’s played out, some men who lost their jobs wound up taking others that paid less.”
The jump in working women has been especially prominent among those who are mothers — from 37 percent in 1968 to 65 percent in 2011 — reflecting in part increases for those who went looking for jobs to lift sagging family income after the recent recession. At the same time, marriage rates have fallen to record lows. Forty percent of births now occur out of wedlock, leading to a rise in single-mother households. Many of these mothers are low-income with low education, and more likely to be black or Hispanic.
Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, said that to his surprise, public attitudes toward working mothers have changed very little over the years. He predicts the growing numbers will lead to a growing constituency among women in favor of family-friendly work policies such as paid family leave, as well as safety net policies such as food stamps or child care support for single mothers.
“Many of our workplaces and schools still follow a male-breadwinner model, assuming that the wives are at home to take care of child care needs,” he said. “Until we realize that the breadwinner-homemaker marriage will never again be the norm, we won’t provide working parents with the support they need.”
Meanwhile, the wage gap between what men and women make has decreased over time. Women made 60 percent of what men made in 1960, while today they make 77 percent, according to the National Committee on Pay Equity.
Lisa Rohrer, who works at Georgetown University Law Center, became the family breadwinner when her husband JJ started his own business. He now picks up their two kids from school.
“For us, it has been ideal in many ways, because it has allowed JJ to pursue his dream of starting his own business and has allowed me to take jobs that require a lot of time and travel. I’m also glad our kids see an alternative way of handling careers, marriage and kids,” she told the Washington Post. “On the other hand, I have a lot more sympathy for dads in families where their wives are staying at home. There is a lot of pressure when you’re the main breadwinner.”
In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of the approximately 1,000 respondents said that it is easier for families to earn enough to live comfortably with women working for pay outside the home.
Yet 50 percent (versus 35 percent) said that it’s harder for marriages to be successful with women working, and 74 percent said it’s harder for parents to raise children. In the same survey, 51 percent said that children are better off with the mother as a stay-at-home mom (versus 34 percent saying children are just as well off if the mother works, and 13 percent saying it depends.)
Meanwhile, less people (64 percent in 2013 versus 71 percent in 2007) answered that unmarried mothers having children is a “big problem.” Republicans, white people, and those over 50 were more apt to say it is a “big problem.”
The Pew study is based on an analysis of census data as of 2011, the latest available, as well as interviews with 1,003 adults by cellphone or landline from April 25 to 28. The Pew poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.