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Most moms will be breadwinners at some point. Why don’t we treat them that way?

New research finds surprising links between education and when women become family breadwinner

SHARE Most moms will be breadwinners at some point. Why don’t we treat them that way?
SHARE Most moms will be breadwinners at some point. Why don’t we treat them that way?

Nearly three-quarters of mothers will at some point be the primary source of financial support for their minor children. And while most of these “breadwinner moms” are single mothers, a growing share have husbands or partners at home.

These facts highlight the importance of helping moms balance work and home responsibilities, according to a forthcoming study in the journal Socius and a briefing paper on the research published by the Council on Contemporary Families.

That 42% of American children are mostly or entirely supported by their moms’ earnings has typically been attributed to single motherhood. But researchers from University of Texas Austin and SUNY at Buffalo found the greatest growth in breadwinner moms has been with the partnered women — a rise from 15% in 2000 to 40% in 2017.

The report shows mothers’ work issues should be taken seriously, said Jennifer Glass, lead author and professor of sociology at the Texas university.

“For a long time, we assumed that motherhood penalties in hiring and paying people are not all that serious a problem because children are supported primarily by other people,” she said. “That’s just not true. The truth is, the financial burden on women continues to increase and these things are handicapping the next generation of children.” 

There’s also more at stake than just a family’s financial resources. Experts say how much families struggle financially has ramifications for how many children they will choose to have at a time when the U.S. fertility rate has reached a low point, raising concerns for the future health of the economy, the social safety net and more.

The rise of breadwinner moms

Education makes a difference in unexpected ways when it comes to whether women become family breadwinners, according to the researchers, who defined “breadwinner” as someone earning at least 60% of their household’s income.

While women with a college degree are less likely to divorce or to have a child outside of marriage compared to those with a high school diploma or less, 72% of them will support their families for at least a time during their first child’s youth. That’s compared to 67% of high school graduate moms and 62% who didn’t complete high school.

The mom most likely to be a primary breadwinner, though, is the woman with some college but no degree: 76% of them will serve that role  — and for longer than other mothers. Thirty percent of mothers overall fit that category.

The study’s authors used data from the Census Bureau’s 2014-2017 Survey of Income and Program Participation to create what they call a conservative estimate of the likelihood a woman will be her family’s breadwinner at some point during her first 18 years of motherhood.

The fact that their estimate is so high is in part a nod to the gains women have made in education and employment, including that women now attend college at higher rates than men, said Glass, who directs the Council on Contemporary Families.

She said education and work gains are good news for women, but added that the findings also reflect “the growing unreliability” of men’s earnings. Income volatility, particularly for men, has increased in the last half-century. The study says 23% of households saw income drop at least $20,000 in a year between 1991 and 2004.

Even as more households rely on moms’ earnings, women have been challenged at work by wage gaps, fluctuating hours and the reality that women typically have the main responsibility for their children. And the pandemic has highlighted workplace precarity for families.

The 2021 American Family Survey found that of those working full time before 2020, 17% of men were temporarily laid off, 8% lost their jobs, 23% lost income and 15% had hours reduced. Among the women, 15% were temporarily laid off, 7% lost jobs, 20% lost income and 13% had hours reduced. Numbers were even higher among part-time workers, with more than a third overall reporting lost income. Women were more likely than men to have to adjust their work schedules when schools closed temporarily, too.

Fertility and work

Glass is among experts who believe providing resources that allow women to work could bolster the declining fertility rate. She cites Australian demographer Peter McDonald, who even 30 years ago showed that industrialized countries that make it easier for mothers to earn a good living have higher fertility.

If women struggle to support their children, they have fewer children “because they don’t have the capacity to earn more to support them,” Glass said. “We all respond to incentives and here the incentive is to restrict your fertility.”

Across the political spectrum, experts agree policies that make it easier for families to afford children boost fertility.

“Affordability is extremely important, which is why studies repeatedly find that when we increase financial transfers, people have more kids! Because budget constraints matter!” said Lyman Stone, a research scholar at the Institute for Family Studies, by email.

But experts often disagree about which programs do the most good. Stone, for instance, supports a child allowance that provides families with a certain amount of money they can count on to help with the cost of raising a family.

Angela Rachidi, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, doesn’t like the child allowance, instead favoring assistance that targets the families in most need with services like subsidized child care. Glass agrees with Rachidi.

Child care comes up repeatedly “because it’s the biggest impediment to mothers’ labor force participation,” Glass said.

“This study reiterates the importance of mothers in the labor force,” Rachidi said. “It also reminds us that we need policies, both from the government and from workplaces, that support mothers and give them the flexibility they need to be successful at work and at home.” 

Rachidi cautions that “one-size-fits-all approaches to paid leave and child care assistance like those offered by the President’s “Build Back Better” plan are not the answer. The president’s plan will unnecessarily increase costs and reduce flexibility for families. Mothers make up a large share of the labor force and according to this study, an increasing share of breadwinners. Whatever formula is working now when it comes to labor force participation could be jeopardized,” she said. 

Other experts support the president’s belief that child care and similar programs are crucial infrastructure to keep America’s economy strong and parents working.

Neither Stone or Rachidi were involved in the study. The other co-authors were R. Kelly Raley of University of Texas Austin and Joanna Pepin, assistant professor of sociology at SUNY at Buffalo.

Government or employers

Although government policies are important, employer attitudes need attention, too, if the country wants to improve parents’ working conditions, Glass said. “It’s not impossible, but it’s just really difficult for people who are caring for children to thrive in the labor market.”

The current situation hurts both parents and their children, who are increasingly an economic asset for all of society, she added. Everyone benefits when kids are given a good start in life and allowed to reach their potential.

Rachidi says pro-family work policies can pay off for men and women. “If they’re going to be helpful to mothers, they are also going to be helpful to fathers,” she noted.

While she sees a role for government to help families that need it through things like paid leave policies and child care “as long as they don’t reduce flexibility for families and are still well-targeted and providing benefits to people who need them,” the private sector needs to step up, said Rachidi.

While the tendency is to ask what the government’s going to do about the pressure on breadwinner moms, Rachidi thinks a better question is what employers are going to do. With increasing competition for workers, she predicts employers won’t be able to simply not hire women who might have family needs that compete with work needs. 

She calls the findings “more of a wake-up call for employers. They need to really understand that mothers and parents are breadwinners for their families and they need a workplace that is flexible so parents can meet their home needs as well as their work needs. ... I think that flexibility is key. And that to me is more of an employer workplace policy than it is a government policy.”

Rachidi said government policy comes with lots of rules and regulations. “The worry is that if you have a government takeover of those policies, flexibility could be lost,” she said.

She warns highly regulated child care, for instance, could reduce availability for workers in rural settings or with nontraditional schedules by putting pressure on family child care providers or small facilities. It could make it harder for certain types of families to find adequate care.

While more employers are stepping up with family-friendly policies, “it tends to be higher skilled, higher paid employees. The gap that remains are lower-wage workers,” Rachidi said.

Moms at work

Glass said they used the most conservative estimate they could and were “shocked” so many moms would be breadwinners— a number that could be higher than the 70% they determined, because they counted only the first 18 years of motherhood.

“You can have dependents at home for a lot longer,” Glass noted.

She said women should know they are very likely to be the primary wage earner at some point and consider that as they make decisions about their work lives and futures. After all, decisions have long-term consequences.

The research said many women become breadwinners when someone in the household loses a job or moves out. But some women become primary earners by thriving in the marketplace.

“I don’t want to convey the impression this is always a terrible thing. But I do think it’s a challenge because we already know that moms, while they get a lot of help from dads, are still doing most of the housework and child care,” Glass said. “It’s difficult to then on top of that put on all of the financial obligations as well. But it’s happening to more and more women.”

She said mothers may face discrimination in the labor market in part because they have home responsibilities and can’t work the extra hours expected in high-powered jobs where money and benefits are most likely to be robust.

“We basically designed a system in which it’s guaranteed the biggest goodies are going to people who aren’t directly caring for children. Those who are directly caring for dependents are going to get the shaft in the labor market. That’s just a dumb situation for a country that wants to prosper in the future. You need to provide resources to those kids — and early on in life. That’s what research keeps telling us. If you don’t, you suffer the lifelong consequences of kids who don’t have a level of cognitive development and educational attainment they need to keep us in a strong competitive position internationally. That’s the hard, cold truth,” Glass said.