May 29, 2013 at 12:01 AM ET
Moms now earn more than dads in almost a quarter of all U.S. families, the highest level in history. It's a huge leap from 50 years ago when only a handful of moms were bringing home the bacon, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.
Overall, women -- including those who are unmarried -- are now the leading or solo breadwinners in 40 percent of U.S. households, compared with just 11 percent in 1960, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau analyzed by Pew.
That’s both good news and bad news, depending on which end of the scale you examine. At the top level, educated women are catching up with men in the workforce. But at the bottom rungs, there are more single mothers than ever and most of them are living near the poverty line.
“It’s a long-term trend since the '60s that the breadwinner moms have gone up,” said Wendy Wang, a Pew research associate and the lead author of the report.
Of the married women making more money than their spouses, 71 percent of the husbands are working and they have a median family income of $80,000, according to 2011 numbers.
In 1960, only 4 percent of married moms were making more than their husbands; now it’s 23 percent. That translates into 5.1 million married “breadwinner moms.”
Of the women making more than their husbands, 49 percent have a college degree or higher and 65 percent are white. Most are also in their peak earning years -- 67 percent of these women are between the ages of 30 and 50.
These are still catching-up numbers for women, who for generations were not in the workforce at the same rate as men. The Pew study noted that despite the fact that mothers are now equally or more educated than their husbands, a majority of fathers still earn more than their wives.
Hollywood actresses, such as Reese Witherspoon and Julia Roberts, and CEOs are often mentioned as examples of this trend. But it is really women at the other end of the economic spectrum who are driving up the numbers.
The other part of the female breadwinner equation focuses on the steep rise in unwed mothers. In 1960, only 5 percent of the mothers were unmarried, but as of 2010, that rate increased to 41 percent, according to research from the National Center for Health Statistics cited in the Pew report. The median income for a single mom in the United States who has never been married was $17,400 as of 2011. That can include income from a job, child support and government assistance.
Of the never-married mothers, 49 percent have a high school education or less and 46 percent are age 30 or younger.
The Pew survey also gauged public opinion on women increasing their roles as a primary breadwinner.
“The public is really conflicted about the trend,” Wang said.
Overall, the survey respondents liked the economic benefits to families but also worried the work might take a toll on the children and marriages. About 67 percent said the change made it easier for families to earn enough money to live comfortably. About 28 percent said it was actually harder for families to earn enough, and 2 percent said it made no difference, according to Pew.
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