The American family is rapidly changing, according to a Pew Research Center report showing that nearly 4 in 10 families with children under the age of 18 are now headed by women who are the sole or primary breadwinners for their families. In addition, the number of married mothers who out-earn their husbands has nearly quadrupled, from 4 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 2011.
The research also found that single mothers have tripled in number, from 7 to 25 percent in the last 51 years.
“The decade of the 2000s witnessed the most rapid change in the percentage of married mothers earning more than their husbands of any decade since 1960,” Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist who studies gender and family trends, told the Washington Post. “This reflects the larger job losses experienced by men at the beginning of the Great Recession. Also, some women decided to work more hours or seek better jobs in response to their husbands’ job loss, potential loss or declining wages.”But the American mindset is still a bit unsettled by these changes. The Pew Research report shows that three-fourths of those surveyed say mothers working outside the home make raising children harder, and half worry that it’s bad for marriages. In addition, about half felt it was better if mothers stayed home with young children, while 8 percent thought it was better if fathers did.But the report does point out that other polls have found that nearly 80 percent of Americans don’t think mothers should return to a traditional 1950s middle-class housewife role.
“The public is really of two minds,” said Kim Parker, one of the report’s authors. Traditional gender roles “are a deeply ingrained set of beliefs. It will take a while for those views to catch up with the reality of the way people are living today.”
“Part of what’s happening is that more men have been getting laid off and are having difficulty finding work,” Sarah Jane Glynn, an analyst with the Center for American Progress, told the Post, noting that the number of married wives who are sole earners has increased since 2007. “And with the way the recovery’s played out, some men who lost their jobs wound up taking others that paid less.”The Pew Research report found that married mothers are increasingly becoming better educated than their husbands. According to the report, 61 percent of husbands and wives in dual-earner households have similar education levels, while 23 percent of the mothers are better educated than their spouses, compared with 16 percent of fathers.Since 1985 women have been graduating from college in greater numbers than men and now earn more advanced degrees in many fields, so this trend could be seen on the horizon 30 years ago.
While about 30 percent of those surveyed think it is better if men earn more, which is down from 40 percent in 1997, those with a high school degree or less are still twice as likely as college-educated Americans to think men should earn more.Heidi Parsons, 44, who owns her own recruiting firm in Alexandria, told the Post those attitudes can make being a breadwinner a challenge in a relationship.“My husband is a massage therapist. The disparity in income is hard for him. I don’t care. I signed up for it. I knew that going in, and it’s never bothered me,” she said. “But it’s hard, because it’s hard for him. What I like to look at is how it was nice that he was home for two years when the kids were little. That’s a contribution there that goes unrecognized on the dad’s side.”
Compared with their married peers, single mothers earn an average of $23,000 and are more likely to be younger, black or Hispanic and have less education than a college degree.
“The makeup of single mothers has changed dramatically,” said Wendy Wang, one of the report’s authors. “In 1960, the vast majority of single mothers were divorced, separated or widowed. Only 4 percent were never married. But now, it’s 44 percent.”
She added that 40 percent of all births are to single mothers.