Breadwinner Moms: How Far We’ve Come and How Far We’ve Got To Go

Last week, the Pew Research Center released a report about “breadwinner moms”-~-women who are the sole or primary providers for their households.  If you have not read it, the full report is available in PDF form here.

Let’s just talk about some of the important points of the report:

  • There are two groups that are considered breadwinner moms.  When Fox News covered this story, they focused on women who earn more than their husbands, but that group is actually the smaller of the two.  Most breadwinner moms are the sole providers for their families, generally single mothers forced to be the family breadwinner.
  • 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.
  • Single mothers are more likely to be younger, are more likely to be women of color (usually African-American or Hispanic), and are less likely to hold a college degree.
  • Married women who out-earn their husbands are disproportionately white and are likely to be more educated than their husbands.
  • The number of people who see unmarried mothers as a “big problem” in society has been shrinking across demographics over the last couple of decades.  So has the number of people who see having women work be destabilizing to marriages and bad for children.
  • Most people now reject the idea that it is bad for a marriage if women out-earn their husbands.
  • Though about 51% of survey respondents said it is better for children if the mother stays home (as opposed to only 8% who said it could be better for children if the father stays home), only 35% of FEMALE survey respondents said that it was better for children if mothers stayed home.
  • In addition to gender gaps across certain questions, there were age gaps in responses across almost all questions in the Pew survey.

What do results like this tell us?

For starters, they indicate that public acceptance of changing gender roles is increasing.  My generation is less likely to think women should stay home, more likely to be accepting of stay-at-home dads, more likely to accept working women as normal, and less likely to say that single motherhood is a big problem, than the generations which preceded us, and my parents’ generation is more likely to hold those same views than my grandparents’ generation.  That indicates that over time, the population in general is becoming more open to these changes in gender roles, and passing that acceptance on to the next generation.

It also tells us that while acceptance of changing roles for women is increasing, changing roles for men are less palatable for the population in general.  Only a tiny portion of the population said it would be better of fathers stayed home, even knowing that in those houses, women were likely the primary breadwinners.  The fact that working women are still in many cases considered detrimental to marriage, and that so many people say it is better for the children if their fathers work, indicates that to some extent, Americans are holding on to these traditional gender roles.  Men are still not seen as caring and nurturing, and therefore would not make good primary caretakers, and there is still some expectation that things would work better if women stayed home-~-even though a large number of respondents recognized that having both men and women work was more economically viable.

Third, it tells us that while feminism has made great strides in terms of getting women opportunities to go to college, enter career fields they were previously barred from, and pursue jobs that can support them…those strides have largely benefited middle- and upper-class white women.  And while we are in fact a group and it is good that we have made advances, it’s past time for intersectionality to be embraced by the feminist movement.

Take a look at those bullet points again.  Never married mothers are more likely to be younger and minority.  WHY?  First, because women of color are oversexualized in ways that create dangerous expectations.  Second, because young women of color are more likely to report that they can’t say no to a boyfriend if he wants to have sex (I’ll find the source for this).  Third, because young women of color are more likely to grow up in poverty, which means they are less likely to have access to resources, including resources for sexual and reproductive healthcare.  I’ve been saying this all along: women need to actually be empowered to say no or to make good decisions for themselves when they say yes.

What else is this telling you?  Never married mothers are more likely to live in poverty.  Look at the median income of this group: $23,000.  Women who fall into this category are often struggling to make ends meet.  Again, for a couple of reasons.  First, because there is a cycle of poverty contributing to lower levels of educational attainment, which in turn provide barriers to getting jobs that pay well.  Second, because early motherhood (especially teen motherhood-~-and since I do NOT have studies to back this, this is in no way me saying that women of color are disproportionately likely to be teen mothers) is often linked to lower levels of educational attainment as parental obligations make it harder to continue with school.  Third, because never-married mothers and poor mothers are less likely to be able to force a man to pay child support, and they are therefore more likely to be fully financially responsible for their children.

I could have talked about the ways in which Fox News really mis-represented this study, but I figured it was better to talk about the important points that they just didn’t bother to discuss at all.  This study tells us a lot about the need for better social services, the need for education reform, and the ways in which feminism has thus far failed to adequately help poor women and women of color.  Issues like access to education ARE feminist issues when you frame them this way, and while feminism has done a lot to help women at a certain level gain access to opportunities, we need to be doing more to help ALL women.



~ by Randi Saunders on June 4, 2013.

One Response to “Breadwinner Moms: How Far We’ve Come and How Far We’ve Got To Go”

  1. Makes me yearn for more mentors for girls growing up economically disadvantaged. An older woman who will talk about education as a savior, earning power as essential, etc.

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