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The Female Breadwinner: What It Means

Gender equality may still be decades off.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of breadwinners in homes with at least one child are women (1). This is a disparate group consisting of single mothers and married women who earn more than their husbands. What does this say about American families today? What does it suggest about families of the future?

The first point is that there are fairly sharp differences as a function of ethnic group and income inequality.

Divisions

Although approximately four-tenths of children in the U.S. are born to single mothers, most of these births are to ethnic minorities, principally blacks (40 percent) and Hispanics (24 percent) rather than to whites.

Amongst whites, there are sharp income differences. For middle class whites, births to single mothers are quite low and differ little from their rates several generations ago (2).

Education is a convenient proxy for earning potential and 46 percent of the children born to American female high school dropouts were outside wedlock, as opposed to just 6 percent of children born to women with a bachelor’s degree (2).

Whereas black and Hispanic female breadwinners are likely to be single mothers, white female breadwinners are more likely to be women who earn more than their husbands.

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All of these differences point to important historical changes in the American family. Most of these historical trends can be explained in terms of economic change.

Economics and the family

William Julius Wilson (3) pointed out that African American men were largely marginalized in their communities for economic reasons. To be more specific, during the 1960s, the decline in demand for unskilled labor meant that it was difficult for them to provide for their children as they had done during the 1950s when demand for their labor was better, and wages higher.

Demand for female workers was better in the emerging service economy. Wilson argued that African American men were economically disqualified from marriage. As a result, breadwinning women supported their own children, often with help from their families of origin.

High unemployment and low wages at the bottom of the pay scale for service employees such as fast food waiters and janitors disqualified men of all ethnic groups from marriage. This means that single parenthood is common for all ethnic groups living in poverty.

The picture for people living in poverty is fairly clear. The changing profile of breadwinning middle-class mothers is worthy of comment.

Middle class women on the rise

Although the number of single mothers who are primary breadwinners is going up, the number of married women who out-earn their husbands is rising faster. Between 1960 and 2011, the number of married breadwinners quadrupled (from 4 percent of households to 15 percent). During the same period, the number of single mother breadwinners more than tripled (from 7 percent to 25 percent).

One key reason that more married women out-earn their husbands is that they are better educated (7 percent in 1960 compared to 23 percent in 2011). Of course 85 percent of husbands are still out-earning their wives so that women still have a long way to go to catch up.

One plausible reason that women today are more career-oriented is that marriage is weaker (4). The high probability of divorce means that married women do better for their children if they have careers. Higher costs of raising children due to inflation in health care, education costs, and so forth, also means that two incomes are desirable.

The Pew study is as provocative for what it suggests about the future as what it tells us about the current state of play.

The future

Men still make up the majority of breadwinners but probably not for long. Crude arithmetic suggests that in another 20 years there may be more female than male breadwinners if current trends persist.

That would be a break with the historical pattern of male breadwinners. Either men will no longer be present in the home, or they will earn less than their wives.

Sources

1. Pew Research Center (2013, May29). Breadwinner moms. Washington DC: Pew Research Center. http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/documents/local/pew-report-bread...

2. Abrahamson, M. (1998). Out-of-wedlock births: The United States in comparative perspective. Westport, CT: Praeger

3. Wilson, W. J. (1997). When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. New York: Vintage.

4. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance: Secrets of the sexual brain. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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