Mothers are the primary or only breadwinners in a record 40 percent of U.S. households with children, according to a study released today.
About 5.1 million of those workers are married women earning more than their spouses, boosting median family income in this group to almost $80,000, compared with the nationwide figure of $57,100 for all families with children, according to the Pew Research Center. Another 8.6 million households are headed by single mothers who report an annual median family income of just $23,000.
The report from Washington-based Pew highlights an economic divide between married and single mothers that has grown amid a steady decline in the fortunes of U.S. households. Median household income in the U.S. in 2011 was $50,054, its lowest level since 1995 and the fourth drop since 2007.
“We put these two groups of women under one umbrella since they play a significant role in their children’s lives,” Wendy Wang, a researcher and coauthor of the report, said in a telephone interview. “But they’re really different groups of mothers.”
The report also illustrates the profound changes in American family life during the past five decades: In 1960, just 11 percent of U.S. families with children relied upon women for a majority of their income. And only 3.5 percent of those primary breadwinners were married women.
Americans are conflicted about the growing role of working mothers, according to Pew. While barely one in five of those surveyed said women shouldn’t work outside the home, 51 percent said children are better off if their mothers don’t work.
Women make up 47 percent of the U.S. labor force. The ranks of working, married mothers has risen to 65 percent from 37 percent in 1968, according to the Pew report.
Among married-couple families with children, wives are the primary breadwinners in almost a quarter of households, about six times the 1960 figure. The number is even higher for recently married women with children. About 30 percent of newly married mothers earned more than their spouses, Pew found.
About 65 percent of households with mothers as the primary breadwinners are white, and almost half include women who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree.
Among two-parent families, Pew reported only 16 percent of married households have fathers who are better educated than their wives. Twenty-three percent of households with children report wives with more education than their spouses. Sixty-one percent include mothers with the same educational levels as their husbands.
The largest increase in primary-breadwinning mothers has occurred among single women who have never been married. In 1960, only 4 percent of women who had never been married had children out of wedlock. By 2011, 44 percent of mothers hadn’t ever been married, according to Census Bureau data.
That trend troubles many Americans, though less so in the most recent survey. Sixty-four percent think the proliferation of unwed mothers is a “big problem,” the Pew report found. A 2007 Pew poll reported 71 percent felt the same way.
Two-thirds of Americans surveyed said the increasing number of working women has made it easier for families to have a comfortable life. At the same time, 74 percent said the increase in working women has made it harder for parents to raise children. Half said it’s making their marriages more difficult.
The Pew survey of 1,003 adults was taken from April 25 to 28. It has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
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