Data released by the Pew Research Center this past week claimed that the woman was the primary breadwinner in 4 out of 10 households. For some, this figure might have been interpreted as a step up from the previous 11% mark in 1960. For others, such as Fox News, this was a sign of further moral decay. But when examined closer, what this data really shows is an alarming stratification of women in the workforce.
Of the four in 10 households, 37% of these top-performing breadwinners are married. The remaining 63% are single mothers. This means that the majority of women who are the breadwinners of their household are so because they have no one to compete with for that title.
From these two groups we see very different images of working women emerging. On the one hand, we have the Sheryl Sandbergs of places like New York and Silicon Valley. These women, on average, are white, college educated, and slightly older with a median household income of $80,000. The number of married women who out-earn their husbands has increased from 4% to 15% since 1960.
However, a working study indicates that there is a sharp drop off, and economists have even suggested that wives with a better education and stronger earning potential than their husbands are less likely to work. This could be why there are crops of "Radical Homemakers" popping up in places like Berkeley, Ca., comprised of highly educated women who decided to create an alternative to being stuck in the binary of Betty Draper or Patty Hewes.
Then there are single mothers. Although divorce rates have gone up, the number of previously married women with children has decreased from 82% to 50% since 1960. Now, a new demographic, "never-married-mothers," has increased from 4% to 44% since 1960. This demographic has unique and distinctive features: never married mothers are much more likely to be younger, less educated, minority women with a much lower household income closer to the poverty line. Nearly half (46%) are under 30-years-old, almost 60% are minority (black or Hispanic), and 49% have a high school education or less.
To argue that the circumstances of these single mothers are liberating neglects the fact that these women are more more likely to suffer the effects of poverty, including restricted access to daycare due to costs. Working mothers in poverty rely more on grandparents (30%) and fathers (29%) than day care centers (16%) for childcare. Mothers in the United States also have more irregular working hours, less maternity leave, and less time to care for their sick child than most other developed countries. On top of the immediate strains of single family households, children from these backgrounds are statistically less-likely to finish college, find stable jobs, and form successful marriages themselves.
So although the number of women breadwinners has increased since 1960, one can observe the new problems facing the nation in regards to this responsibility. For both demographics, married or unmarried mothers, problems still exist, and new ones have emerged: highly educated women are shying away from the workforce when they could outperform their husbands, and single working mothers are more likely to live in poverty.