Breadwinner Moms and Income Inequality

Source: Pew Research Center. (Click for larger image.)
Source: Pew Research Center. (Click for larger image.)

by James A. Bacon

The Pew Research Center made a big splash in May with research showing that mothers are the sole or primary source of family income for two out of five American families. The Pew study, based upon an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, yielded important insights into the dynamics of wealth distribution in U.S. society.

The so-called “breadwinner moms” can be classified in two broad groups. The first consists of married professionals who out-earn their husbands. Interestingly, the total income of such families tends to be  higher because the husbands typically work as well, providing two sources of income. The second group consists of single, less-educated mothers who struggle alone on lower incomes to support their children. These never-married mothers are significantly younger, have lower education and income and are more likely to be non-white.

According to the Pew study, both categories of these women have increased in number over the past five decades. States the report: “The share of married mothers who out-earn their husbands has gone up from 4% in 1960 to 15% in 2011, nearly a fourfold increase. During the same period, the share of families led by a single mother has more than tripled (from 7% to 25%).

Bacon’s bottom line: It is foolish and irresponsible to talk about the growing wealth gap in the United States without taking into account the sociology of the family. I have frequently alluded to the oft-discussed breakdown of the family structure among lower income groups. When poor single moms account for an increasing share of U.S. households, it’s little wonder that the poor, collectively speaking, can’t get ahead.

Almost equal in significance has been the rise of the professional woman. Educated women with higher incomes are far more likely to get married, and their children are far more likely to grow up in higher-income households. Thus, the affluent get more affluent.

While women’s liberation (the feminist revolution, whatever you want to call it) has created significant equality for women with higher levels of education and income, it has accentuated inequality between social classes. That’s because educated women holding down good jobs make more desirable marriage partners, it seems, than poorly educated women working minimum wage jobs. And two income-families on average earn more money than single-income households.

The Virginia angle: The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service’s StatChat blog has crunched the numbers for Virginia. The national numbers hold true here in the Old Dominion. According to Rebecca Tippett with the Demographics & Workforce Group, here are the median incomes for different categories of households:

Both spouses work……………….. $103,000
Husband only works…………….. $  78,960
Wife only works…………………….$  57,000
Neither works……………………….$  21,110

In a follow-up blog post, Annie Rorem published the following chart:

Source: StatsChat blog
Source: StatsChat blog

From an educational perspective, there is little difference between the educational attainment of primary earners and secondary earners among working married women. (Primary earners are more likely to have an advanced degree — that’s about it.) As Rorem observes, married women have a wider range of child-care choices:

Some married mothers who are employed, but earn less than their spouses, may work less than full time in order to provide at-home child care; …  Married mothers who out-earn their husbands may rely on their partners for some child care, or may devote some household income to paid child care, allowing them to work more.  Single parents’ child care options may be more limited—for example, due to the prohibitive cost of child care—perhaps influencing, or even necessitating, a decision to work fewer hours in order to be present with children themselves.

There may be even more to the story. Rorem notes that the data on single mothers make no distinction between single women who cohabitate and those who do not. In a future post, she will explore differences in employment patterns between single v. cohabitating v. married women.

Update: Here is the spin on the data proffered by W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. He emphasizes the data in the Pew study that shows the ambivalence many Americans have about breadwinner moms.

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3 responses to “Breadwinner Moms and Income Inequality”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    Well researched and well written.

    Now, look a the distribution of single mother heads of family – by location and by ethnicity.

    60% of families in the City of Richmond are being raised by a single parent. How many times do you think that’s the mother or maternal grandmother?

    Among African – American families in the the City of Richmond the percentage rises to 86%.

    Meanwhile, the majority of people incarcerated in America’s prisons grew up in fatherless homes.

    How does the incredible percentage of single family h0mes in cities like Richmond (among others) along with the associated societal problems caused by growing up in a fatherless home square with your future view of more people wanting to live in the cities?

  2. larryg Avatar

    eh… I did not see how divorced woman with children fit into the research.

    since about 1/2 of marriages fail – and a good number involve kids – that ought to be part of the numbers in my view.

    but here’s the problem that we won’t talk about:

    Our culture is all about “family” and encourages, incentivizes having a “family”, i.e. – having kids – no matter your fitness to parent them nor your ability to financially provide for them.

    “We are “family”!

    Our society encourages everyone to have a “family” and we provide a full range of incentives and tax breaks to pay for it but when you are not educated enough to get a good job – you end up with your life not well under control and kids on top of that – is just too much for some people to handle and the result is a cycle of poverty – not only financial but “family”-wise.

    When mom is single and has no real hope of a future – the kids get drawn up in it also – they have no aspirations beyond their mother’s limited one and they grow up like her – without an education and without a real hope for opportunity and advancement.

    Some folks blame this on the “welfare state”. For myself – all I can see is a place like we see in foreign lands where the kids literally become street urchins begging for pennies or petty thievery to stay alive – so the standard libertarian answer to the welfare state seems even more disastrous.

    The only way to break the cycle is to ensure that the child has a good education – sometimes in spite of Mom and the kids awful home life.

    Otherwise, we are doomed to pay entitlements not only to Mom but to her offspring – for life – or worse – incarcerate them.

    OR.. we could just close the public schools since they are so bad anyhow with bad teachers to boot – and let the kids become modern day US-style street urchins… etc, etc, et al.

    1. Virginia Bacon Avatar
      Virginia Bacon

      I agree that it’s not clear how divorced women with children fit in here – I’d be interested in hearing more about how they fit into the equation. Many divorced women with children don’t fall into the group of people who don’t have much education, though it appears that they are averaging less income than their married peers. Hm…

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