The Breadwinner Moms of Today’s America
by David Gibson
Wives in today’s America frequently out-earn their husbands in the workplace. Interestingly enough, fewer and fewer men object to this growing fact of contemporary life. In fact, a significant majority of American men and women “reject the notion that it’s best for a marriage if the husband out-earns his wife,” according to a new report.
The report also shows that in this age of dual-earner couples, the American public still asks questions about what is best for children. Adults by a large majority think the expanding presence of mothers in the workplace makes it harder to raise children.
The increased earning power of 21st century wives who work either full time or part time is not exactly news; much already was known about this reality. For whatever reason, however, a May 29 Pew Research Center report based on its own late-April survey and U.S. Census Bureau data, punctuated the point anew and drove it home for many.
Suddenly, every TV and radio news outlet, and every newspaper seemed to be reporting in amazed tones on the “Breadwinner Moms.”
“Both the mother and the father work outside the home” today in 59 percent of two-parent households, according to the Pew report. It remains the case in a majority of those households that the husbands have higher incomes than the wives. But, the report adds, “for a growing share of these couples, the mother out-earns the father.”
The Pew center characterized “the rise of married mothers who out-earn their husbands” as “part of a broader trend of wives’ increasing economic power relative to their husbands.” It explained that today, for “nearly one-quarter of married couples with or without children,” the wife is the primary breadwinner.
There is a hint in the report that this phenomenon will continue to grow in American society due to the educational achievements of so many newlywed wives. “In 2011, three-in-10 newlywed couples consisted of a bride whose income was higher than that of her husband,” it says.
Even among newlyweds, “the most common situation” is that the husband earns more than the wife, the report clarifies. But it notes that in 2011 the newlywed wife’s “education level was higher than the husband’s in 26 percent” of cases. In only 16 percent of these couples “did the husband’s educational attainment exceed that of his wife.”
The Pew report suggests that women’s rising educational levels contribute “to the increased share of married mothers who out-earn their husbands.” The report says that while “most people are married to someone with a similar educational background, the number of couples in which the wife is better educated than her husband has increased.”
Americans recognize the ways families tend to benefit in economic terms from the increased presence of mothers in the workplace. In 2012, 65 percent “of women with children younger than age 6 were either employed or looking for work,” the Pew report shows – a statistic representing a dramatic increase since 1975.
But “while working outside the home is now more the norm than the exception for mothers of young children, the public remains conflicted about this trend,” the report states. In the Pew poll conducted in April, 51 percent of adults “said children are better off if their mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while only 34 percent said children are just as well off if their mother works.”
But “a decade go the public felt even more strongly that the best thing for children was to have a mother who stayed home,” the report points out.
Actually, the Pew report describes “two very different groups” of breadwinner moms. Statistically speaking, these groups differ starkly from each other in economic terms and other ways.
1. One group consists of “married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands.”
2. The other group consists of single mothers, who also divide into two different groups: mothers who have children from a previous marriage and mothers who never married.
The report highlights “the income gap” between married and single mothers, which “is quite large.” At the same time, it calls attention to noteworthy differences between the two groups of single mothers.
Many studies have documented the high rates of economic deprivation and poverty among single mothers. The Pew report does little to dispel that image.
“The median total family income of married mothers who earn more than their husbands was nearly $80,000 in 2011,” which was “nearly four times the $23,000 median for families led by a single mother,” it says.
Among single mothers, the percentage of those who never married has grown significantly in recent times, the report observes. These mothers, it says, “are significantly younger” than other single mothers, they are “disproportionally racial and ethnic minorities” and nearly half of them have either a “high school education or less.”
The report comments that “even though single mothers as a whole have the lowest income among all families with children, never-married single mothers are particularly disadvantaged economically.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.