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Mothers Are Breadwinners in 40% of Households, Says Study

The Exchange

Whether they want to or not, more working women are “leaning in.”

A new report from the Pew Research Center finds that women are the main source of income in 40% of U.S. households with children, which is a record. In 1960, women were the main earners in just 11% of such households.

Two prominent trends account for the rise of breadwinner moms. The first is an increase in the number of two-income families in which the woman earns more than the man. That group accounts for 37% of the bacon-bringers. The other 63% includes single moms who are the only source of income in the home. Altogether, Pew says 13.7 million American women qualify as breadwinner moms.

This is both good and bad news, and it’s likely to provide plenty of fuel for the spirited debate over the role of women in the workplace. Women have generally fared better than men during the last five years, because many of the jobs lost during the recession were in male-dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing. Women are more heavily represented in health care and education, which have held up better during the downturn.

Women now account for roughly half the workforce, and they’re outpacing men in education, earning more bachelor’s and advanced degrees. Yet there’s still a sizable pay gap between men and women doing similar work, with women earning just 77% of what men earn, according to one commonly cited study.

There’s no disputing that women have become economically powerful, but there’s plenty of hollering about what it means. One popular book recently declared “the end of men,” while another insisted that women are “the richer sex.” The bestseller “Lean In” by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg argued, among other things, that women ought to be more assertive in the workplace, in order to earn the pay, responsibility and respect that many people believe accrues more naturally to men.

At the same time, it’s also clear that a lot of working moms are reluctant breadwinners bearing more responsibility for the family’s well-being than they’d like. High unemployment has left many women no choice but to work more to keep the family afloat. And not too many people envy single working moms, who often feel they’re doing everything possible to keep their families together—but none of it particularly well. The median household income for families led by a single mother is just $23,000.

The latest data on incomes, in fact, suggest that mothers who are working and earning more are simply trying to compensate for their husbands' lost income. Census Bureau figures show that the median household income has essentially stayed flat since 2000. So if women are earning more, men must be earning less.

While women are clearly in the workforce to stay, many families could make some adjustments about who works and who doesn’t as the economy recovers and jobs return. The Pew data hows that 51% of people feel children are better off if a mother stays home, while only 8% feel that way about father being at home. If working women have anything to say about it, Mr. Mom might be heading back to work before long.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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