Researcher says rise in breadwinning mothers is a 'sea change'

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A new report from the Pew Research Center, showing that 40 percent of American households with children under 18 have mothers as their sole or primary wage earner, describes a "sea change" in American society, says a university professor interviewed on The Daily Circuit.

Read the hour's comments, calls and Tweets

"This is a dramatic shift in the way families are organized," said Christina Gibson-Davis, who teaches public policy, sociology, and psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. "And whenever you have those kinds of dramatic shifts, it's going to cause some rethinking. I'm not surprised that we're still ambivalent, given how big a shift this actually is." In 1960, only 11 percent of households had mothers as the sole or primary breadwinners.

That 40 percent share pulls together two groups, however, in vastly different situations: Single mothers, whose median income is $23,000, and married mothers who earn more than their husbands, with a median family income of $80,000. The population of single mothers is the larger of the two.

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"It's actually three groups," Gibson-Davis said. "You have the women who are making more than their husbands, the $80,000. Then you have divorced moms who are a fraction, and they're making about $30,000. And then you have never-married moms, and they're making about $17,500. So when you think about single moms, there are actually two groups."

Never-married moms "are the fastest-growing segment," she said. "They are now about 44 percent of all single- parent families."

Gibson-Davis suggested that the trend might be part of an overall inequality problem in U.S. society.

"We talk a lot about differences and inequality in this country," she said, "and people are very concerned about growing income inequality. But really we have a problem with marriage inequality, in that we have one group of women who are getting married and tend to have more education and are earning high incomes ... but there's also this growing track of women who aren't getting married, who are being left behind. And those tend to be minority women, less educated women. So there's a divergence of marriage patterns, and that can contribute to growing income inequality."

Bryce Covert, Economic policy editor at ThinkProgress, agreed that the good news for high-earning women was only part of the story.

"Women who are making more than their husbands are a growing share of married couples, and it's an interesting and upbeat financial picture for them," she said. "But I think this trend of growing breadwinning women is actually driven more perhaps by single parents. Two-thirds of that increase in breadwinning women was for single moms. And that is less of a positive story just because they tend to make much less."

COMMENTS, CALLS AND TWEETS: Listeners and readers had a lot to say. Add your comments below.

Shelly in Bloomington: I make more than double what my husband does. ... My husband is really supportive; he's just proud of me ... It's really not a big deal that I'm the one who makes more, in our family anyway.

Mary in Prior Lake: I was a single mom, I got married and then I got divorced ... While I don't get any financial support from my ex-husband for his son, at all, I've noticed that a lot of my women counterparts who also make a lot of money are also forced to pay their spouses support because they made more money and they're the primary custodial parent on top of that. It's quite a challenge, and there's not a lot of understanding.

Kate in Minneapolis: While many women are making more than their husbands, we are still making significantly less than our male counterparts at work. That's the case with me. I work in a male-dominated industry. I make more than my husband. However, I know very concretely that I'm making significantly less than my colleagues at work.

@kerrimpr @dailycircuit perhaps a life balanced between freelance work & lots of time with my child is my (unfair) gender privilege today.

— Greg Seitz (@gregseitz) June 4, 2013

Bradley Van Winkle: I'm home with the kids by choice and circumstance. My wife had her PhD and a good job already when I finished my masters and we started having kids 6 years ago. Works great for us. But as a friend has pointed out, this is actually a pretty traditional choice in comparison to two working parents or single parents.

@kerrimpr Im a b.s. In biochemistry major and planning on phd, boyfriend works labor jobs. He makes more now, but i will make way more.

— Caitlin Ryan (@BrassHearts) June 4, 2013

@kerrimpr I'm the breadwinner but my title is "Minister of Finance" & hub's is "Minister of Domestic Affairs". More equitable nomenclature.

— Leah Ford (@p_girl) June 4, 2013

@kerrimpr sole breadwinner for family of 5 for almost 8 years, my husband is full time stay at home dad. a LOT harder than people think!.

— Kim Opitz (@rribbitz) June 4, 2013

Peggy Nelson Sannerud: I happen to have a steady job and a reliable paycheck and benefits, while my husband is more suited (happier) re-inventing himself and doing odd things, starting businesses, etc. I am happy that our family structure can allow him to try new things and not be fettered behind a desk. He hates that - it nearly led to our divorce when I stayed home when the kids were little.

Al Michaud My wife is the breadwinner and I have been a SADH for the past 7 years. It was partly our choice when I was laid off from my teaching job and it has worked out very well for us. I get to see my kids growing up with all the milestones that most dads miss.


What's Wrong With the Breadwinner Moms Study
"I'd be interested to see a survey of the nearly half (49 percent) of never-married single mothers with a high school education or less and a median family income of $17,400 in 2011 (the lowest among all families with children) asking about the 'gains' they have made in the workforce. Certainly more jobs are open to women than in 1960, and more single mothers hold some of those jobs, but to be a single parent is to be, of necessity, the breadwinner." (Motherlode blog, The New York Times)

Record Number Of Families Rely On Women's Income, Many Of Them Headed By Single Mothers
"The rising tide of breadwinning married mothers is gaining momentum but is still not the structure of a typical family. Three-quarters of married couples are those where a husband makes more than his wife, although that has fallen from 95 percent in 1960. And studies have found that women who make less than high-earning husbands, which is likely given the gender wage gap, are more likely to leave the workforce, giving up all earning potential that might outmatch their spouse." (Bryce Covert, ThinkProgress)