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The shift reflects evolving family dynamics.
For one, it has become more acceptable and expected for married women to join the work force. It is also more common for single women to raise children on their own. Most of the mothers who are chief breadwinners for their families — nearly two-thirds — are single parents.
The recession may have played a role in pushing women into primary earning roles, as men are disproportionately employed in industries like construction and manufacturing that bore the brunt of the layoffs during the downturn. Women, though, have benefited from a smaller share of the job gains during the recovery; the public sector, which employs a large number of women, is still laying off workers.
Women’s attitudes toward working have also changed. In 2007, before the recession officially began, 20 percent of mothers told Pew that their ideal situation would be to work full time rather than part time or not at all. The share had risen to 32 percent by the end of 2012.
The public is still divided about whether it is a good thing for mothers to work. About half of Americans say that children are better off if their mother is at home and doesn’t have a job. Just 8 percent say the same about a father. Even so, most Americans acknowledge that the increasing number of working women makes it easier for families “to earn enough to live comfortably.”
Demographically and socioeconomically, single mothers and married mothers differ, according to the Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey. The median family income for single mothers — who are more likely to be younger, black or Hispanic, and less educated — is $23,000. The median household income for married women who earn more than their husbands — more often white, slightly older and college educated — is $80,000. When the wife is the primary breadwinner, the total family income is generally higher.
Such marriages are still relatively rare, even if their share is growing. Of all married couples, 24 percent include a wife who earns more, versus 6 percent in 1960. (The percentages are similar for married couples who have children.)
The implications for the stability of marriages is unclear. In surveys, Americans usually indicate that they accept marriages where the wife is the greater earner. Just 28 percent of Americans surveyed by Pew agreed that it is “generally better for a marriage if the husband earns more than his wife.”
But the data on actual marriage and divorce rates suggests slightly different attitudes.
A recent working paper by economists at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the National University of Singapore found that, in looking at the distribution of married couples by income of husband versus wife, there is a sharp drop-off in the number of couples in which the wife earns more than half of the household income. This suggests that the random woman and random man are much less likely to pair off if her income exceeds his, the paper says.
The economists also found that wives with a better education and stronger earning potential than their husbands are less likely to work. In other words, women are more likely to stay out of the work force if there is a big risk that they will make more than their husbands.
Perhaps even more tellingly, couples in which the wife earns more report less satisfaction with their marriage and higher rates of divorce. When the wife brings in more money, couples often revert to more stereotypical sex roles; in such cases, wives typically take on a larger share of household work and child care.
“Our analysis of the time use data suggests that gender identity considerations may lead a woman who seems threatening to her husband because she earns more than he does to engage in a larger share of home production activities, particularly household chores,” the authors write.
Of course, these patterns may change as the job market evolves. College degrees, for example, are becoming increasingly important to both finding and keeping a job. And women are more likely than men to get college degrees.
As of 2011, there were more married-couple families with children in which the wife was more educated than the husband, according to Pew. In roughly 23 percent of married couples with children, the women had more education; in 17 percent of the couples, the men had higher education. The remaining 61 percent of two-parent families involve spouses with about equal levels of education.
Norms are also changing: Newlyweds seem to show more openness to having the wife earn more than her husband than do longer-married couples. In about 30 percent of newly married couples in 2011, the wife earned more, versus just 24 percent of all married couples.
Americans are becoming more accepting of single mothers as well. In a survey conducted April 25-28, Pew found that 64 percent of Americans said the growing number of children born to unmarried mothers is a “big problem,” down from 71 percent in 2007. Republicans are more likely than Democrats or independents to be concerned about the trend.
Today’s single mothers are much more likely to have never been married than in the past, Pew found. In 1960, the share of never-married single mothers was just 4 percent; as of 2011, it had risen to 44 percent. Never-married mothers tend to make less money than their divorced or widowed counterparts, and are more likely to be a member of a racial or ethnic minority.
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