Working moms as primary breadwinners: why the US is seeing so many more

In 4 out of 10 US households, the mother now earns the key income, according to a new Pew study. More women are single mothers, and more wives are outearning their husbands.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/TCSM
Commuters crowd onto subways at the end of the work day, on March 13, in New York. A Pew Research Center study released Wednesday, based on US census data, shows a dramatic change in women's role as earners, as more women are single mothers or outearn their husbands.

A record 40 percent of American mothers are the primary breadwinner for their families, up from 11 percent in 1960, according to a Pew Research Center study released Wednesday.

The report, based on US census data, shows a dramatic change in women’s role as earners, as more women are single mothers or outearn their husbands. It reflects the growth of women in the workforce and could be due in part to the elimination of manufacturing and other traditionally male jobs during the Great Recession, analysts say.

"This change is just another milestone in the dramatic transformation we have seen in family structure and family dynamics over the past 50 years or so," said Kim Parker, associate director of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project. "Women's roles have changed, marriage rates have declined – the family looks a lot different than it used to. The rise of breadwinner moms highlights the fact that, not only are more mothers balancing work and family these days, but the economic contributions mothers are making to their households have grown immensely."

Women make up 47 percent of the US labor force, and the percentage of married mothers who are working has increased from 37 percent in 1968 to 65 percent in 2011.

"I always thought I'd be working – not just for the financial implications, but because I love what I do," Karen Potter, a mother who works as an endodontist in California, told the Los Angeles Times. When her daughter grows up, "I hope and pray that she knows you can be there for your children and have a career that you're passionate about."

Since 1960, the percentage of mothers who are single has tripled, from 7 to 25 percent. And the share of married mothers who outearn their spouses has nearly quadrupled, from 4 to 15 percent.

“The decade of the 2000s witnessed the most rapid change in the percentage of married mothers earning more than their husbands of any decade since 1960,” said Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist who studies gender and family trends, in The Washington Post. “This reflects the larger job losses experienced by men at the beginning of the Great Recession. Also, some women decided to work more hours or seek better jobs in response to their husbands’ job loss, potential loss, or declining wages.”

There are substantial differences between single mothers, who make up nearly two-thirds of mom breadwinners, and the 37 percent of mothers who are married and primary breadwinners.

The median family income of married mothers who earn more than their spouses was about $80,000 in 2011, nearly four times the $23,000 median for families led by a single mother. In comparison, the national median family income for all families with children is $57,100.

"I think mothers are forced to work these days," Samantha Salbeck, a project manager for a construction firm in Ripon, Calif., told the Associated Press. "It just costs so much to raise a family, and women have gotten smarter about it, getting an education and pursuing positions that women would not typically pursue 10 to 20 years ago."

Single mothers are also younger, more likely to be black or Hispanic, and less likely to have a college degree, Pew found. Married mothers who outearn their husbands are slightly older, disproportionally white, and college educated.

Education is one of the factors driving the increased number of breadwinner moms, although it tends to be a characteristic of married high-earners rather than single moms, says Wendy Wang, lead author of the Pew report.

“The mothers who make more than their husbands ... are the most highly educated out of all mothers,” she says.

Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, predicts the increasing numbers of working mothers 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."

Demographers say the change is all but irreversible, but still, the general public is not entirely sure that having more working mothers is a good thing.

While roughly 79 percent of Americans reject the notion that women should return to traditional roles, only 21 percent of those polled said the trend of more mothers of young children working outside the home is a good thing for society, according to the Pew survey.

Other findings from the report:

• There is a gender gap when it comes to attitudes. About 45 percent of women say children are better off with their mother at home, and 38 percent say children are just as well off if the mother works. Among men, 57 percent say children are better off with their mother at home, and 29 percent say they are just as well off if she works.

• The share of married couples in which the wife is more educated than the husband is rising, from 7 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 2011. Still, most married couples have similar educational backgrounds – at 61 percent. 

• The number of working wives who make more than their husbands has been increasing more rapidly in recent years. Among recently married couples, including those without children, the share of "breadwinner wives" is roughly 30 percent, compared with 24 percent of all married couples.

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 land line from April 25 to 28. The Pew poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. 

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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