A Closer Look at ‘Breadwinner Moms’

NEWS ANALYSIS: Are the findings of the new Pew study really something to celebrate?

WASHINGTON — “A liberated woman,” feminist icon Gloria Steinem once remarked, “is one who has sex before marriage and a job after.”

The comment managed to conflate the loose mores of the sexual revolution with the gender-neutral utopia beloved of the women’s movement.

Today, 21st-century feminists still chase the dream of interchangeable roles for men and women at work and home, and they point to “reproductive rights” as the gateway to a more equitable world.

That’s one reason why women’s-rights groups pressed the White House to include contraception and sterilization in its list of mandated “preventive services” authorized under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

The Pew Research Center tapped into that mindset when it released its latest report, seductively entitled, “Breadwinner Moms.” The study prompted a slew of headlines that suggested Steinem’s hopes would soon be realized.

An executive summary of the report’s findings stated: “A record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.” Pew said the numbers were based on an “analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The share was just 11% in 1960.”

Yet the substance of the report is unlikely to inspire the uncorking of champagne bottles at Ms. magazine, let alone mainstream USA.

To reach the “record 40%” figure, the Pew researchers awkwardly combined data collected from households headed by impoverished single mothers with salary numbers from middle-class families in which Mom earned more than Dad.

A breakdown of the numbers revealed that 60% of these mothers had no husband and were caring for their children on an annual median income of $23,000. The total median income for the more affluent households with married moms was almost $80,000.

Syndicated columnist Mona Charen sifted through the report and concluded that moms who outearned their husbands constituted “just 22.5% of married couples with children under the age of 18.”


The Feminist Calculus

At first glance, the Pew researchers’ puzzling decision to label both groups of women as “breadwinner moms” seems strange.

But the approach underscores the tendency of our cultural elites to view wives’ traditional dependence on their husbands’ paychecks with disfavor, while a break from that pattern constitutes a victory for women’s goals of financial autonomy.

This approach reflects a feminist calculus of sexual politics as a zero-sum game, with one gender gaining advantage and the other necessarily losing ground.

It conveniently ignores the fact that the median household income of married mothers — whether they work or care for their children full time — consistently outpaces that of single mothers.

Pew noted the “share of never-married mothers among all single mothers has increased from 4% in 1960 to 44% in 2011.”

Further, this group has “a distinctive profile. Compared with single mothers who are divorced, widowed or separated, never-married mothers are significantly younger, disproportionally non-white and have lower education and income,” the Pew report stated, with a “median family income [of] $17, 400 in 2011, the lowest among all families with children.”

Pew researchers found that a growing number of Americans do not see a connection between non-marital births and entrenched poverty for many women and children, who grow up without fathers.  Just 50% of Democrats view non-marital births as a "problem," while 20% of Republicans take this view.

The inconvenient truth that husbands and fathers are vital to the financial stability of families receives little attention in the media or school textbooks, and that may help explain the shift in public opinion and actual practice, with single mothers now accounting for about 40% of live births in 2012.


Variety of Views

Meanwhile, the more appealing narrative of “breadwinner moms” involves college-educated women outpacing men in educational attainment and securing parity in white-collar jobs.

Yet the views and experience of this group of middle- and upper-middle-class women are hardly monolithic.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, garnered an http explosion of media coverage after she published Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, a neo-“feminist manifesto” that urges women of childbearing age to aim for the brass ring at their corporations rather than positioning themselves for more low-key career tracks or preparing to leave work entirely.

But while Sandberg has many fans, she has also received pushback from women who don’t want to be guilt-tripped into staying on the job or question whether the Facebook executive’s aggressive stance is realistic for most mothers.

Of course, the Pew researchers noted, “Married mothers are increasingly better educated than their husbands.” But the authors of the report hinted at other factors that might have skewed the data, including the ongoing impact of the 2008 financial crisis on labor-intensive work like manufacturing and construction, traditionally filled by men.

University of Virginia marriage expert Bradford Wilcox underscores the impact of slow job growth. He noted the survey’s finding “is driven in part by the fact that many of their husbands as under- or unemployed: About one-quarter have husbands who are not working, according to the 2011 American Community Survey.”

Further, new social research suggests that wives who bring home bigger paychecks experienced more problems with their marriages than those who didn’t.

Pew researchers also studied public opinion about these social trends and found that most people are worried — not because they have any particular beef with moms earning a paycheck, but because they fear that children may not be getting their mothers’ attention.


Drawing Conclusions

What to make of all of this?  

The University of Chicago’s Richard Thaler asserted that hidebound men need to come to grips with an altered landscape: “As women continue to outperform men in school, these problems are likely to grow. … Until that realization sinks in, problems arising from tradition-bound notions of gender identity will keep taking a toll on our economy and our families.”

Bradford Wilcox, for his part, suggested that the rise of “breadwinner moms” has provoked public concern because the trend looks “more like the familial ingredients of an American dystopia, not an androgynous utopia.”

Wilcox remarked on another curious element of the Pew study — 29% of the single “breadwinner moms” receive public assistance and “are not even working, according to the 2011 American Community Survey.”

For those who buy into the notion that autonomous women are more in control of their destiny — and thus more fulfilled — a check from Uncle Sam may be preferable to a husband’s salary. This message, some commentators argued, was the subtext of President Obama’s 2012 campaign’s “Story of Julia,” a slide show charting the government’s support for Julia from cradle to grave (she has a child but no husband)j. 

So will American women cheer when they read headlines marking the rise of “breadwinner moms? 

Maybe. But my guess is that most wives don’t see family income as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. They aren’t looking to compete with their husbands for the bigger paycheck, though the shifting U.S. economy makes it more likely that many spouses will be sharing work and family responsibilities.

Despite current efforts to dismiss “tradition-bound notions of gender identity,” wives want their husbands to play an irreplaceable role in the life of their families.

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.