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Monday, September 09, 2013

Women Breadwinners

There was a story that dominated the media earlier this summer: that mothers are the primary breadwinners in 40% of American households according to the Pew Research Center.  This invoked, in many minds, the picture of an almost equal participation of moms and dads in the workforce and at home.  After digging into the numbers, however, I found that nothing could be further from the truth.

The trick, it turns out, is to read Pew’s findings in conjunction with the birth data.  While mothers are the primary breadwinners in 40% of households, the same percentage of births are to unmarried mothers.  Although the two populations do not perfectly overlap—not every female breadwinner is a single mother—they do to a surprisingly significant extent: 8.6 million (63%) of women breadwinners in the United States are single mothers.  A further analysis of the numbers reveals the startling fact that 25% of all breadwinners in the United States are single mothers earning a median income of $23,000 per year.

In other words, we are seeing a dramatic increase in women who are both the single parent and the primary breadwinner at relatively low wages.  This would be a different story if the numbers showed that 40% of married households had a female breadwinner.  But in married households with children today, only 15% have women primary earners.  This is just a slight increase from the year 1960, when 11% of households had breadwinner moms and when, by the way, the rate of births to unmarried women stood at 5.3%.

Posted by Margaret Ryznar on September 9, 2013 at 03:47 PM | Permalink


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Thanks for all the great comments. I agree men's choices and fathers' rights also require attention and I look forward to reading your data.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Sep 13, 2013 11:42:58 PM

You make important points that few want to hear and take seriously. An even more radical idea is to focus on men's choices and the factors that affect them. Sex inequalities in child custody and child support are about an order of magnitude larger than widely discussed sex inequalities in the labor force. Do you think sex discrimination against fathers affects men workforce choices?

Here's some relevant data and analysis:

Posted by: Douglas Galbi | Sep 12, 2013 10:07:51 PM

This does not surprise me much, at least these single mothers are stepping up to the plate when the fathers won't.

Posted by: Rowan | Sep 10, 2013 2:08:01 PM

This should be coupled with the recent empirics that "Discrimination Against Mothers is the Strongest Form of Workplace Gender Discrimination: Lessons from U.S. Caregiver Discrimination Law" Stephanie Bornstein, Joan C. Williams & Genevieve Renard Painter International Journal of Comparative Labour Law and Industrial Relations, Vol. 28, no. 1, 2012, pp. 45-62
Work-family reconciliation is an integral part of labor law as the result of two major demographic changes: the rise of the two-earner family, and the pressing concern of elder care as Baby Boomers age. Despite these changes, most European and American workplaces still assume that the committed worker has a family life secured so that family responsibilities do not distract from work obligations. This way of organizing employment around a breadwinner husband and a caregiver housewife, which arose in the late eighteenth century, is severely outdated today. The result is workplace-workforce mismatch: Many employers still have workplaces perfectly designed for the workforce of 1960. Labour lawyers in Europe and the United States have developed different legal strategies to reduce the work-family conflicts that arise from this mismatch. The Europeans' focus is on public policy, based on a European political tradition of communal social supports -- a tradition the United States lacks. Advocates in the United States, faced with the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world, have developed legal remedies based on the American political tradition of individualism, using anti-discrimination law to eliminate employment discrimination against mothers and other adults with caregiving responsibilities. This article explores both the social science documenting that motherhood is the strongest trigger for gender bias in the workplace and the American cases addressing "family responsibilities discrimination." http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2311747

Posted by: orly lobel | Sep 10, 2013 1:31:20 AM

I am surprised that this is treated as news, anyone who looked at the data would have seen this and I think this reflects on the severe limitations of blogging -- it would not have taken much time to read the Report or the news reports that made this connection. Blog posts over morning coffee are really not worth posting.

Posted by: MLS | Sep 9, 2013 11:32:25 PM

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