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Moms are top earners in 4 out of 10 households – and they could use more help

A new Pew Research study out today points to something many families already know – that our mamis are the ones who increasingly either bring home the bigger paycheck, or are in fact the only ones who have a paycheck.  Mothers are now the top or sole earners in 40 percent of American households – a staggering increase compared to 1960, when moms were only 11 percent of the main breadwinners.   The share of married moms who out-earn their husbands has almost quadrupled, from 4 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 2011.  And society seems to accept this – 63 percent of Americans polled disagree that it is better if a husband makes more than his wife and only 28 percent agree.  In 1997, 40 percent of people agreed that husbands should make more.

One of the key findings of the study is how women’s educational achievement has increased. Sixty-one percent of two-parent families have a mother with a similar education level to her husband, and 23 percent – more than one in five – are more educated than the husband.

At the same time, the share of single mothers has gone from 7 percent in 1960 to 25 percent in 2011. The profile of working single mothers who have never married is very different from married working moms or those who are divorced or widowed.  Never-married mothers are significantly younger, disproportionately non-white, and have lower education and income. Twenty-four percent of never-married single moms are Latina, and nearly half have a high school education or less.  Their median family income was $17,400 in 2011, the lowest among all families with children.

Georgetown University professor and former Labor Department chief economist Adriana Kugler says the study illustrates the need for more family-friendly policies to bolster the well-being and productivity of working mothers and their families.

“What is concerning is that this rise in women breadwinners has not been matched with an increase in access to childcare at work or childcare benefits. Less than 10% of workplaces in the U.S. offer childcare onsite or subsidize childcare,” Dr. Kugler says.  “Moreover – only 1 in 5 women in the lowest quintile of the earnings distribution have access to paid parental leave, and even if they have access to unpaid family leave, many of these women will not be able to afford taking time off,” adds the Latina economist.

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Kugler also points out that only 1 out of 2 women have some flexibility in terms of scheduling their working hours, and only 1 in 5 have flexibility in terms of work location.

Americans’ views on women in the workplace seem to reflect these difficulties.  While 67 percent say more working moms have made it easier for a family to live comfortably, about three quarters say the increasing number of working moms has made it harder for parents to raise children.

“It appears like workplaces ought to reflect the new reality of households,” says Kugler, adding, “policies to encourage the adoption of more flexibility, more childcare and paid family leave would benefit both employers and families.”

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