May 29, 2013

Breadwinner Moms

Mothers Are the Sole or Primary Provider in Four-in-Ten Households with Children; Public Conflicted about the Growing Trend

Chapter 1: Overview

SDT-2013-05-breadwinner-moms-1-1A record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The share was just 11% in 1960.

These “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: 5.1 million (37%) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.1

The income gap between the two groups is quite large. 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.2

The groups differ in other ways as well. Compared with all mothers with children under age 18, married mothers who out-earn their husbands are slightly older, disproportionally white and college educated. Single mothers, by contrast, are younger, more likely to be black or Hispanic, and less likely to have a college degree.

SDT-2013-05-breadwinner-moms-1-2The growth of both groups of mothers is tied to women’s increasing presence in the workplace. Women make up almost of 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 2011.3

The impact the recession may have had on this trend is unclear.4 However, a Pew Research Center survey conducted in November 2012 found that mothers’ views about whether and how much they would like to work had changed significantly since 2007 (before the recession officially began). The share of mothers saying their ideal situation would be to work full time increased from 20% in 2007 to 32% in 2012. And the share saying they would prefer not to work at all fell from 29% to 20%.

SDT-2013-05-breadwinner-moms-1-3A new Pew Research Center survey finds that the public remains of two minds about the gains mothers have made in the workplace–most recognize the clear economic benefits to families, but many voice concerns about the toll that having a working mother may take on children or even marriage. About three-quarters of adults (74%) say the increasing number of women working for pay has made it harder for parents to raise children, and half say that it has made marriages harder to succeed. At the same time, two-thirds say it has made it easier for families to live comfortably.

SDT-2013-05-breadwinner-moms-1-4While the vast majority of Americans (79%) reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles,5 the new Pew Research survey finds that the public still sees mothers and fathers in a different light when it comes to evaluating the best work-family balance for children.

About half (51%) of survey respondents say that children are better off if a mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while just 8% say the same about a father.

SDT-2013-05-breadwinner-moms-1-5On the topic of single mothers, most Americans (64%) say that this growing trend is a “big problem”; however, the share who feel this way is down from 71% in 2007. Also,
young adults are less concerned than older adults about the trend. About four-in-ten adults under age 30 (42%) view it as a big problem, compared with 65% of those in their 30s and 40s and 74% of adults who are 50 and older.

The public’s opinions about unmarried mothers also differ by party affiliation and race. Republicans (78%) are more likely than Democrats (51%) or independent voters (65%) to say that the growing number of children born to unwed mothers is a big problem. Whites are more likely than non-whites to view it as a big problem (67% vs. 56%). The views of men and women on this issue are the same.

Data for this report are mainly from Pew Research analysis of multiple years of Census Bureau data as well as a recent Pew Research survey conducted by landline and cellular telephone April 25-28, 2013, among a nationally representative sample of 1,003 adults living in the continental United States. More detailed information about the data sources can be found in Appendix 2.

Other Key Findings

Cite this publication: Wendy Wang, Kim Parker and Paul Taylor. “Breadwinner Moms.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (May 29, 2013) http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/29/breadwinner-moms/, accessed on July 23, 2014.

  1. Based on Pew Research Center analysis of 2011 American Community Survey, the unit of analysis is the household head, single mothers who are not the head of household (e.g., single mothers living with parents) are not included in the count. Similarly, married couples in which neither of the spouses is a household head are not included in the analysis.
  2. The income gap between the two groups remains when using personal income as the measure. The median personal income of married mothers who out-earn their husbands was $50,000 in 2011, compared with $20,000 for single moms. Both personal and family income was self-reported. There is a small difference between the median personal income of single mothers and their family income. It could be due to financial contributions of other adult family members such as a cohabiting partner or a parent.
  3. See Kim Parker and Wendy Wang, “Modern Parenthood: Roles of Moms and Dads Converge as They Balance Work and Family,” Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends project, March 14, 2013.
  4. Trend analysis is based on Decennial Census data. There may be fluctuations within each 10-year period which are not reflected in the chart on p.1.
  5. Based on a 2012 Pew Research Center survey. For more details, see “Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years: Trends in American Values 1987-2012,” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, June 4, 2012