Women are now top earners in 40 percent of families

Women in America are now the primary earners in an amazing 40 percent of families with children. Photo: Working mother

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2013 — Women in America are now the primary earners in an amazing 40 percent of families with children, up from a mere 11 percent in 1960.

The findings by the Pew Research Center released Wednesday show a growing number of “breadwinner moms” who keep their families afloat financially. While most are headed by single mothers, a growing number are families with married mothers who bring in more income than their husbands.

Since women continue to earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, the information coming out of Pew also means that many families are living with less than they used to.

Some believe this is an expected progression but the general population is not sure that having a working mother is a good thing when children are still in the home.

Although almost 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.

Roughly three out of four adults said the increasing number of women working for pay has made it harder for parents to raise children.

“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 with 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.”

The trend is being driven by higher rates of education for women and the strength of the women’s movement. Today, more women than men hold bachelor’s degrees, and they make up nearly half, 47 percent, of the American workforce.

But recent changes in the economy, too, have played a part. Big job losses in manufacturing and construction, fields that used to provide high pay to a predominantly male workforce, have lifted the value of earnings of married women, even among those in mid-level positions such as teachers, nurses or administrators. The jump in working women has been especially large 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.

In all, 13.7 million U.S. households with children under age 18 now include mothers who are the main breadwinners. Of those, 5.1 million, or 37 percent, are married, while 8.6 million, or 63 percent, are single. The income gap between the families is large, $80,000 in median family income for married couples vs. $23,000 for single mothers.

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.”

The survey discovered other interesting findings as well.

There is a rather large gender gap on attitudes about the effect on a family if a mother is working outside of the home. About 45 percent of women say children are better off if their mother is at home and 38 percent say the children are just as well off if the mother works outside of the home or not. Men disagree; 54 percent believe children are better off if their mother is at home and only 29 percent say it does not matter.

Another finding was that the number of couples where the wife is more educated than the husband is on the rise. Those numbers have increased from seven percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 2011. Still, 61 percent of couples have similar educational backgrounds.

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 Associated Press contributed to this article.


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Susan L Ruth

Susan L. Ruth is a long-time Washington, DC resident with extensive ties throughout the community.  She is a genealogical researcher and writer, and is an active volunteer in the Northern Virginia competitive swimming community.  Susan previously worked providing life-skills to head injured adults. 

Susan and her husband Kerry currently live in Northern Virginia with their three sons, Ryley, Casey and Jack and their American Bulldog, Leila.


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