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Public Opinion On The Record Number Of Female Breadwinners


A new Pew study finds that in a record 40 percent of all households with kids under 18, mothers are either the sole or primary source of income. In 1960, that share was just over 10 percent. These breadwinner moms number in the millions, but about three-quarters of all adults say that the prominence of women's economic role makes it harder to raise children. Half say it's made marriage harder to succeed. If you're one of these breadwinner moms, call, tell us what we don't know about the tradeoffs.

800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also find us on Twitter, @totn. Kim Parker - excuse me. Kim Parker is one of the authors of Pew's breadwinner mom study. She's associate director with the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project, and joins us now from Pew's offices here in Washington. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

KIM PARKER: Thank you so much. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And I guess the first thing we have to understand is there are two very different groups of women we're talking about.

PARKER: Absolutely. Two very distinct groups. As you said in the opening about four in 10 - in about four in 10 households with children under 18, you have a mother who is either the sole or primary breadwinner. Now, within that four in 10, there are two groups. One, is a group of married mothers who are actually outearning their husbands. The other are single mothers. And both groups have been growing steadily over time, but their income profiles and their demographic profiles are quite different.

CONAN: The married moms who outearn their husbands, these are, well, well-off, to say.

PARKER: They are. We looked at their incomes in comparison to the national median income for households where there are children under 18. And on average, the national median is 57 - around $57,000 for households with children. In these households where you have a married couple and the wife outearns her husband, their median income in 2011 was close to $80,000, so significantly higher than the national median. Then if you look at the households that are led by single mothers, it's a much different economic situation. The median income there in 2011 was about $23,000, so less than half of the national median for that type of household on average.

CONAN: So what's the driving force for this shift as they take on a greater and greater role?

PARKER: Well, I think there are a couple of things at work here. I mean, women have obviously become more involved in the workplace. They now are almost at parity with men in terms of their representation in the labor force. Also in recent decades, women have made tremendous educational gains. And if you look at young adults now, women are actually outpacing men in terms of college attainment and also the attainment of certain types of graduate degrees.

So not only there are more women in the workplace, but they're also better trained and more equipped to get high-paying jobs and to increase their earning potential. The other really important change that we've seen over the last 40 or 50 years is the very steep increase in the share of children being born to unmarried mothers. So this group of single moms has just grown and grown to the point where now they're a pretty significant chuck of family households that we see in the country.

CONAN: And there seems to be something of a disconnect. The vast majority of Americans - you find 79 percent reject the idea that women should return to their traditional roles. Yet, about half respond that children are better off if a mother is at home and doesn't hold a job. How do you square those two things?

PARKER: It's interesting, and you can't really square those two things. I think that society is conflicted about these trends. And these changes have occurred pretty rapidly, and the public isn't quite caught up with the realities of today. I think, you know, if - there are both positive and negative aspects to this trend. But the public clearly sees the economic benefits to families, but they also see the drawbacks for children. And there are sort of deeply ingrained feelings about the roles of mothers and fathers in their children's lives. And we had another short series of questions in the survey where we ask people is a child better off if their mother is at home or if their mother's out in the workplace, and 51 percent said a child is better off if their mother is at home.

When we ask people is a child better off if their father is at home or in the workplace, only 8 percent said a child is better off if their father is at home. So there you see really contradictory views in - when you think of how accepting people are of the advances that women have made and the idea that so many more women are in the workplace and just excelling in all these different areas. But still, people wonder, you know, what impact does this have on children and what's the future of the family going to look like.

CONAN: And these, of course, are, by their nature statistics and they don't cover individuals. Everybody's story is different. That's what we want to hear from our callers today. If you're a working mom, how does this - well, tell us about the tradeoffs. There are parts of this that we just don't understand: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Sarah, and Sarah is on the line with us from South Bend.

SARAH: Hi there. Longtime listener. I am a working mom. I'm married. I've got three kids. And I make about twice as much as my husband does. But however much I bring home, I'm still expected to do everything with the kids too. And I get to the point where I feel like I'm being vilified for being a working mom, but I'm also trying to set an example for my kids, that they can achieve, even at my age, anything they want.

I'm still in college. I'm getting my Master's program in science of nursing. And I wouldn't have it any other way. So you know, there is a disconnect, I think, between what society says is best for our families and what we feel is best for our family.

CONAN: And it sounds like there's a little domestic tension too.

SARAH: Oh, yes.


SARAH: You know (technical difficulties) you know, more men could stay home with their kids on a regular basis and find out just how stressful it can be to get all the activities in and do the housework and do the homework and do work. You know, I feel like I have absolutely no time. I go to bed so late. I get up so early. And yet it is a challenge for me to get my husband up to make coffee in the morning, you know? So that's my comment.

CONAN: Well, good luck with that.

SARAH: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Sarah. And, Kim Parker, I wonder, are there generational differences that you were able to find in this study?

PARKER: There are generational differences. First, I'd like to just mention that we - in a previous study we did this year we actually looked at the way that mothers and fathers spend their time, and we were able to analyze, you know, the current situation with how mothers and fathers spend their time in, you know, 1960, 1970, and that gender roles really have converged to some extent. So you used to have women spending most of their - the vast majority of their time in work at home and men spending the vast majority of their time in work - paid work in the workplace.

And those things have come together quite a bit, mostly as a necessity as more women have gone into the workplace. But it's true that women still are carrying a heavier load at home, both in terms of childcare and housework, and I think that's sort of the reality that the caller was referring to. In terms of generational differences, we do see that older Americans are more concerned about some of these trends, particularly the, you know, the rising share of unmarried mothers in this country. Overall, 64 percent of the public says that that's a big problem for this country.

Older Americans are more concerned. But if you look at adults under the age of 30, they're much less concerned. And so it may be that as that generation continues to age, this will become, you know, not such a big deal and more of the norm, and maybe younger adults who are more accepting of some of these societal changes that we're seeing will, you know, maybe they're sort of the leading edge of how opinion will change.

CONAN: Let's see if we'd get another caller in. This is Amanda. Amanda with us from DeKalb in Illinois.

AMANDA: Hi, Neal.


AMANDA: Longtime listener. I'm actually a married woman. I have a 3-year-old and a baby due actually in July. And my husband has just graduated with his Master's, and he actually doesn't have a job yet. And I'm lucky that I have a job where I actually get six weeks paid maternity leave, but I'm not able to take anything more than that just because we don't have any income at this point.

And I think that one thing that needs to be addressed is the lack of maternity leave in this country. And even if, you know, women are making more than their husbands or especially single moms, that, you know, if some - I'm lucky that I actually get paid six weeks to have a baby. And that's not the case for a lot of people. I'll take my answer of the air.

CONAN: All right, Amanda. Thanks very much for the call. And her story illustrates a couple of different things, and one of which she mentioned is the lack of that institutional support, maternity leave, sick days, that sort of thing. The other is that though she is married and part of that average that earns over $80,000 a year, well, there's some people at the bottom end of that too, even if they're married.

PARKER: Absolutely. And as you stated earlier, I mean these are sort of aggregated statistics, and there are many different situations within - even, you know, obviously within married couples and within - with - in single mother led households. So it's important to always keep that in mind, that there are nuances and differences. And what we're reporting here are really averages. I think she also raises the point that, you know, it's a difficult job market out there right now and it's been difficult through this recession and also this sluggish recovery.

So there are a lot of people who have had to increase their hours or take a job where they'd rather be at home because their spouse is unemployed or has had to take a cut in pay. And so there's all kinds of circumstances that people are dealing with. But it does, it does make - you're in a slightly better position if you've got two potential partners in the household and you can, you know, work the tradeoffs off in, you know, in the way that's best for your family.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Heather. Heather is on the line from San Antonio.

HEATHER: Oh, hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

HEATHER: Hi. I'm a work mom with two kids and a husband that was out of work, you know, for a while. Because of those monetary problems and me - first me at home with the kids, I did get kind of resentful, you know, that things weren't getting done (unintelligible) with my husband. I felt like I was doing everything. Well, then my husband was laid off.

And I became a single mom. I left my husband. I went into real estate, became a waitress. And it was very difficult being a single mom. And it was - my heart goes out to everybody who does it because it's the most difficult job I ever had, while I was trying to get back into the workforce.

And then my husband and I decided that, you know, life is too short and that we're going to work at it and get back together for the kids, which neither one of us had growing up. You know, my mom was a single mom but she was always at work, you know, and I didn't have a dad around really. And so we decided for the kids we were going to, you know, stick it out. And we did. And then luckily, you know, in time I got a job at a really great, very large insurance company here in San Antonio.

And then I started working all the time. My husband still didn't have a job. And I was a little bit resentful that my husband was at home, the house wasn't clean the way I would clean it, sometimes coffee wasn't made. However, the kids were always better off than me and him ever were, because they have both parents that even when we were both of out work, we took them to the park together and we made the best of it as a family.

And in the long run, you know, I just want to say that, you know, life is hard, being out of work is hard, getting a job is hard, especially in this workforce. But I just feel like if people stick it out and would, you know, look at the big picture with love and family, that everything will kind of fall into place with time. And you know, that's what we did, and it was hard, but we're doing well now.

CONAN: Well, that's an inspiring story, Heather. And it's story of hard work and determination, it seems to me.

HEATHER: Yes. I got it from my mom.


CONAN: Yeah. Sounds like it. Thanks very much for the phone call.

HEATHER: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Kim Parker, who's the associate director with the Pew Social and Demographic Trends Project and one of the authors of Pew's Breadwinner Mom study released today. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Amy on the line, calling from Louisville.

AMY: Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead.

AMY: Thanks for taking my call. I've been reading about this all day, or seen the headlines anyway. And the big question that I've had is, I guess just true for my situation, but I graduated college so much faster than my husband did. I think I've just had the potential to get those pay increases that he hasn't had, you know, the opportunity yet to have the time.

And I noticed you mentioned that education is part of it. And I'm just wondering if there are any correlating statistics that say, well, women are graduating at a faster or higher rate, and therefore they're, you know, becoming the higher earners by default. And I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Amy, thanks very much.

PARKER: Sure. Yeah. I think that there definitely are statistics showing that women - I don't know if it necessarily shows that they get through the four-year college process more quickly. But we do know that a much higher share of young women are walking away with a college degree than young men. They're outpacing men in terms of enrolment and in terms of college completion. And that's got to have a big impact on their ability to go out into the workforce and earn an income and potentially earn more than their spouse.

And if you look back to 1960 and you look at the whole universe of married couples, only in about 4 percent of those couples did the wife make more than the mother.

And today that's up to almost one and four. So that's a big increase. And I would anticipate that that would continue to go up as women continue to make these gains. In a way women has some catching up to do. But now they're getting - reaching more of a point of parity with men.

CONAN: And that says something about the future. As you look at this study, we are not going back, ever, it seems, to 1960, where this was 10 percent of the workforce. It's 40 and going up.

PARKER: I think it is 40 and going up. I think when you look at the trends, you know, the growing share of single moms that we have, there is no real indication that that's going to reverse anyways. And then you see the gains that women are making in education and the gains in the workforce, and that's just going to increase their earning potential.

But I think one thing that is a counterbalance to this trend, again, is the attitudes of the public and the fact that the public is still, you know, a little bit uneasy. And I think that that, you know, I don't know if that will hold back the trend, but that will definitely be a factor in terms of people, you know, the way that people choose to live their own lives and the decisions that people make. And maybe the public will catch up to these trends, or maybe we'll reach a tipping point where people decide this is enough and, you know, it's time to take a step back. But I don't anticipate that happening. I think we're going to just to see women continuing to make these gains.

CONAN: And it has important implications not just for policy on the governmental level, requirements for maternity leave and sick days and that sort of thing, but on the corporate level, too, for daycare and the kind of amenities that, well, nobody even thought of 40 years ago.

PARKER: Absolutely. And that's that, you know, we don't - we don't get into the policy recommendations in our research, but that's always the sort of final question, is that how can things be arranged in such a way that women can have it all. And that's still something that everything I think is grappling with.

In some of our previous research we've asked men and women what they value most in work. And still women are much more focused on having a job that provides flexibility for them because they really do have that pull and that tag back towards home and the needs of their children. And dads do too. But dads are also more focused on providing for their families, at least they have been in the past.

CONAN: Kim Parker, thanks very much.

PARKER: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Kim Parker, one of the authors of Pew's Breadwinner Moms study and associate director with the Pew Social and Demographic Trends Project. Tomorrow, the next in our looking ahead conversations. Choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones will join us again. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.