Women as primary breadwinners of their families on the rise

By Claire Throckmorton, WLP Legal Intern

Women are the primary breadwinners in nearly 40% of families with children under the age of 18, according to a recently released report from the Pew Research Center. This number has almost quadrupled when compared to the 11% of mothers who were the primary breadwinners in 1960. Approximately two-thirds of these women are single mothers. The remainder is comprised of married mothers in both single and dual-income households, making the married mother the primary breadwinner in a traditional nuclear family household in15% of all households with children under 18.

The median total income for families is greatest in dual-income households where wives earn more than their husbands. The median income for these households is $79,800, compared to the median dual-income household of $78,000 when the husband earns more. On the other side of the spectrum, however, single mothers earn vastly less than either dual-income households or single father households. At a median income of $23,000, single mothers earn less than half of the median income for all households and $12,000 less than single father households.

The increasing trend of women being primary breadwinners is due to the larger number of women entering the workforce and earning higher education degrees. Sarah Jane Glynn, an analyst with the Center for American Progress, told the Washington Post that the recent recession accelerated the trend. “Part of what’s happening is that more men have been getting laid off and are having difficulty finding work…And with the way the recovery’s played out, some men who lost their jobs wound up taking others that paid less,” she noted.

The Pew report reveals that Americans’ attitudes towards the rise of women in the workplace are generally conflicted. While 80% of Americans do not believe that women should return to their traditional 1950s-esque gender roles, 74% believe it is harder to raise children when the mother works. Another 50% believe working mothers make it harder for a marriage to succeed. Report author Kim Parker believes this disparity between ideology and reality is due to Americans’ deeply ingrained beliefs about gender roles. But are these ideologies accurate?

Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families, states that within the middle-class, dual-earner households have the highest rating of marital quality in the United States. Furthermore, researchers have been unable to find any substantial negative effects on young children when the mother is employed. Research in Britain and Norway has found no negative impact on adolescents. Is this related to the longer paid maternity leave and comprehensive childcare systems in these countries? The United States ranks last in support for working families among developed nations.

Women are now a staple in the workforce and will remain so. Thus, the question is no longer whether mothers should be working, but when the U.S. is going to start implementing strong social policies that will allow working parents the flexibility to raise their children and support their families.

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