Politics & Policy

The Rise of Breadwinner Moms

This is no androgynous utopia.

You would never know it from the breathless coverage of the new Pew study showing that “breadwinner moms” can be found in 40 percent of homes with children, but the United States is not on the verge of some androgynous utopia.

It is true that four out of ten families with children now depend for all or most of their income on Mom. But five social realities undergirding this statistic belie the notion that utopia lies just around the corner.

One. The biggest reason that “breadwinner moms” are so common today is that 25 percent of today’s families with children are headed by single mothers. In most of these families, this means that Dad will not or cannot come close to doing his fair share of the housework, child care, and breadwinning needed to sustain a family. The median income of these single-mother-headed households, $23,000, is not even half the median income enjoyed by homes headed by two parents (who typically pull in more than $70,000). And 29 percent of these single “breadwinner moms” are not even working, according to the 2011 American Community Survey.


Two. The public is concerned about the growing share of children being raised by single moms. The Pew study found that 64 percent of the public thinks that the rising share of children born to unmarried mothers is a “big problem.”

Three. About 23 percent of married families have mothers who out-earn their husbands. The rise of these married breadwinner-mother families is driven in part by the fact that many of their husbands are under- or unemployed: About one-quarter have husbands who are not working, according to the 2011 American Community Survey. And men without good jobs are much more likely to end up depressed and divorced.

Four. The public is ambivalent about the rise of breadwinner-mother families. While most Americans appreciate the financial contributions that working mothers make to their families, almost three-quarters of adults (74 percent) think that the growing share of women working for pay has made it harder for parents to raise children, and 50 percent of the public thinks it has made it harder for marriages to be successful.


Five. This ambivalence may flow in part from the fact that breadwinner-mother marriages seem to be more difficult than marriages where the father is the primary breadwinner. One new study from the University of Chicago found that couples “where the wife earns more than the husband are less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce.”

The growing number of breadwinner moms has partly been fueled by our nation’s incorporation of bright and capable women into the workforce, which is all to the good. But the rise of breadwinner moms has also been fueled by surging rates of nonmarital childbearing, single motherhood, and male unemployment. These trends look more like the familial ingredients of an American dystopia, not an androgynous utopia. Perhaps this is why the public is so conflicted about the rise of breadwinner moms.

— W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, is the author of Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Scientific Perspectives. Follow @WilcoxNMP.

W. Bradford Wilcox — W. Bradford Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Isabel Sawhill is a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and a former co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings.

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