Female Household Breadwinners: Delving Deeper Into The Numbers

You probably saw the headlines last week about the news that women are the sole or main breadwinner in 40% of U.S. households, according to recent Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Working women make up almost half (47%) of the U.S. labor force today, and the employment rate of married mothers with children has increased from 37% in 1968 to 65% in 2011.

Some of the analysis about the “breadwinner” statistics dug deeper into the numbers to point out that, in fact, there are two very separate and different groups represented — 5.1 million (37%) of “breadwinners” are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) of them are single mothers.

Not surprisingly, the income gaps between those two populations are dramatic. 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.

“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,” writes The New York Times Motherlode columnist KJ Dell’Antonia.

The Pew survey also gauged social attitudes regarding working moms. 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. So clearly, we’ve still got a long way to go as far as acceptance for working mothers.

On the flip side, in a guest column in The New York Times, Stephanie Coontz, co-chair at the Council on Contemporary Families, wrote about the benefits of work for women, suggesting that “at all income levels, stay-at-home mothers report more sadness, anger, and episodes of diagnosed depression than their employed counterparts.”

But the real point of Coontz’s column is that we as a society should stop asking whether mothers should work outside of the home, but we should focus on how to help working parents by providing better maternity leave and childcare solutions.

Certainly, we should applaud the fact that working women’s earnings have risen relative to men’s over the past 40 years, but, on average, women’s pay still lags behind. Also, there is still a bias against married women who earn more than their husbands. The divorce rate rises by about half (to about 18% from 12%) in couples where the wife earns more than the husband.

Do you earn more than your husband? How does that impact who makes the buying and parenting decisions and who does the chores?