Breadwinner Moms Reach New Heights

Washington — May 29

A record 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The share was just 11 percent in 1960.

These “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: 5.1 million (37 percent) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63 percent) are single mothers.

The income gap between the two groups is quite large. The median total family income of married mothers who earn more than their husbands was nearly $80,000 in 2011, well above the national median of $57,100 for all families with children, and nearly four times the $23,000 median for families led by a single mother.

The groups differ in other ways as well. Compared with all mothers with children under age 18, married mothers who out-earn their husbands are slightly older, disproportionally white and college educated. Single mothers, by contrast, are younger, more likely to be black or Hispanic, and less likely to have a college degree.

The growth of both groups of mothers is tied to women’s increasing presence in the workplace. Women make up almost of half (47 percent) of the U.S. labor force today, and the employment rate of married mothers with children has increased from 37 percent in 1968 to 65 percent in 2011.

The impact the recession may have had on this trend is unclear. However, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in November 2012 found that mothers’ views about whether and how much they would like to work had changed significantly since 2007 — before the recession officially began. The share of mothers saying their ideal situation would be to work full time increased from 20 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2012. And the share saying they would prefer not to work at all fell from 29 percent to 20 percent.

A new Pew Research Center survey finds that the public remains of two minds about the gains mothers have made in the workplace — most recognize the clear economic benefits to families, but many voice concerns about the toll that having a working mother may take on children or even marriage.

About three-quarters of adults (74 percent) say the increasing number of women working for pay has made it harder for parents to raise children, and half say that it has made marriages harder to succeed. At the same time, two-thirds say it has made it easier for families to live comfortably.

While the vast majority of Americans (79 percent) reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles, the new Pew Research survey finds that the public still sees mothers and fathers in a different light when it comes to evaluating the best work-family balance for children.

About half (51 percent) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8 percent say the same about a father.

On the topic of single mothers, most Americans (64 percent) say that this growing trend is a “big problem.” However, the percentage that say they feel this way is down from 71 percent in 2007. Also, young adults are less concerned than older adults about the trend. About four-in-ten adults under age 30 (42 percent) view it as a big problem, compared with 65 percent of those in their 30s and 40s and 74 percent of adults who are 50 and older.

Other Key Findings:

Both groups of breadwinner mothers, married and single, have grown in size in the past five decades.

Of all households with children younger than 18, the share of married mothers who out-earn their husbands has gone up from 4 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 2011, nearly a fourfold increase. During the same period, the share of families led by a single mother has more than tripled — from 7 percent to 25 percent.

The total family income is higher when the mother, not the father, is the primary breadwinner.

In 2011, the median family income was nearly $80,000 for couples in which wife is the primary breadwinner, about $2,000 more than it was for couples in which husband is the primary breadwinner and $10,000 more than for couples in which spouses’ income is the same.

Married mothers are increasingly better educated than their husbands.

Even though a majority of spouses have a similar educational background, the share of couples in which the mother has attained a higher education than her spouse has gone up from 7 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 2011. In two-parent families today, 61 percent have a mother whose education level is similar to her husband’s, 23 percent have a mother who is better educated than her husband, and 16 percent have a father who is better educated than his wife.

Most people reject the idea that it is bad for a marriage if a wife out-earns her husband.

When asked if they agree or disagree that it is generally better for a marriage if a husband earns more than his wife, some 28 percent of survey respondents say they agree and 63 percent disagree. When a similar question was asked in 1997, 40 percent said they agreed. In the new survey, adults with a high school diploma or less were twice as likely as those with a college degree — 35 percent vs. 18 percent — to say it is generally better for a marriage if a husband out-earns a wife. There were no significant differences between men and women on this question.

Today’s single mothers are much more likely to be never married than were single mothers in the past.

The share of never married mothers among all single mothers has increased from 4 percent in 1960 to 44 percent in 2011. During the same period, the share of single mothers who had children from previous marriages has gone down from 82 percent to 50 percent.

Never married mothers have a distinctive profile.

Compared with single mothers who are divorced, widowed or separated, never married mothers are significantly younger, disproportionally non-white and have lower education and income. Close to half of never married mothers in 2011 (46 percent) are ages 30 and younger, six-in-ten are either black (40 percent) or Hispanic (24 percent), and nearly half (49 percent) have a high school education or less. Their median family income was $17, 400 in 2011, the lowest among all families with children.

Source: Pew Research Center