Female Breadwinners are on the Rise, but Policies Still Lag

I’m not gonna lie. I love it when single moms get attention. Whether I spot a sister-in-arms at the playground, read about us in The New York Times, or see one as the heroine of a Hollywood movie, I feel a sense of proud kinship with other women raising kids alone. So when I came across this week’s news proclaiming that moms are the primary breadwinners for an astonishing 40% of U.S. households, my heart went aflutter. Go, ladies! That’s us they’re talking about!! Great to know I’ve got lots of company! Whazaaa?!

The realities of this Pew Research Center statistic are complicated though. There’s a lot to cheer about, of course. But the data accompanying the statistic also reveals a startling lag in support for the growing number of working women — both in public policy and public opinion.

On the one hand, the near quadrupling in the percentage of female breadwinners over the last half-century reflects lots of fabulous trends. Women’s pay is inching up on men’s (albeit slowly and only in some occupations). We constitute the majority of college and graduate school students — and are even earning more doctoral degrees. And as women’s earning power grows, so do our options for starting families. Parents are also adjusting their family roles as more women work, with men taking on more child-rearing responsibilities and increasing numbers becoming stay-at-home dads. This is great news on the gender-equality front, and I give all my pioneering sisters (and our supportive male cohorts) a big high-five for the significant progress we’ve made over the past century.

It’s thrilling to be part of a generation of women benefiting from the fruits of my marching foremothers who helped set the stage for our professional success, and to create the myriad choices we enjoy when it comes to family. I’m grateful each day that I can own my own business, work from home and earn enough to support a family while being actively involved in raising my two preschoolers as a single mother.

Yet it’s clear, when you look closely at the Pew data, that there’s work to be done. Just 37% of the female breadwinners are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, according to the report. The rest, nearly two-thirds, are single moms. Sure, some of them are like me — well-educated, upper-middle class women who can afford to raise children without a spouse, even if it is not always easy. But the majority are not. There’s a harsh disparity in pay between single and married female breadwinners, with married moms earning a median income of $50,000 and single mothers bringing in just $20,000 a year on average. That’s the federal poverty level for a household of three.

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Even among married female breadwinners, higher paychecks don’t account for all of the growth. Many have fallen into their role by circumstance, not by choice. The recent economic downturn forced some women back into the workforce, and huge job cuts in high-paying, mostly male fields like manufacturing and construction sectors made some working women – even those in mid-paying fields – the primary breadwinners by default. It’s not necessarily the case that their income has increased but often that their spouses’ has decreased (or disappeared altogether).

I’ve written extensively about how women simply cannot afford to choose to be financially dependent on a man. No one plans for divorce, disability, death or unemployment, and the current economy is forcing many families to face the fact that there is significantly more financial security when both parents nurture their careers and bolster their earning potential. But attitudes about working mothers are out of whack with this new reality.

Many families depend on a woman’s paycheck (and demographers expect the number to continue growing), and 65 percent of married mothers work outside the home. Yet more than half of Americans still say they believe that children are better off if the mother is at home, according to the Pew survey. Despite the increasing reliance on women’s paychecks to support the family, nearly three-quarters of adults surveyed by Pew say that when women work outside the home, it makes it more difficult for parents to raise children, and half say it makes it harder for marriages to succeed.

As a society we suffer from a working-mother complex: we feel guilty when women work outside of the home, yet economic realities say that we must. Meanwhile, there is a sorry lack of public resources to support these very realities—child care is prohibitively expensive, school hours do not jibe with work hours, most jobs offer little flexibility for working parents and on and on. No wonder we say that it is tough when moms work – especially when the mom is the only parent.

Changing these perceptions (and the very real challenges that shape them) — and closing the wage gap between married and single moms — will require a shift in public opinion and public policies. But it’s possible. In fact, it’s already taken place in most other industrialized nations, which seem to have a better understanding of what it takes to raise a child as a working parent (or, even, as one of two working parents): a regulated and subsidized child-care system, affordable health care, and laws that encourage family-friendly work policies that make earning a living and raising children not only possible, but productive.

But none of these institutionalized changes will come until we embrace and celebrate our roles as working moms – whether we are the primary or secondary breadwinner, married or single. Only then will we have the confidence to demand policies that make it easier for both parents to work.

Emma Johnson is a freelance business writer in New York City. She blogs at WealthySingleMommy.com.

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