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More Women As Family Breadwinners Reflects ‘Values Shift’ in the U.S.

May 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Mothers are the sole or primary source of income for a record 40 percent share of all families in the U.S., according to a new Pew Research Center report. Judy Woodruff discusses what the study suggests about the changing dynamics of work and family life with Pew's Paul Taylor and Ellen Galinsky of Families and Work Institute.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There are new findings that show moms more than ever are becoming the breadwinners of the American family. A record 40 percent of all families with children under the age of 18 are now headed by women who are the sole or primary source of income.

That analysis, based on census data, was released today by the Pew Research Center. Notably, there are big income disparities among these women. Almost 25 percent of families are led by single mothers who earn a median of $23,000 dollars a year. Another 15 percent of families are comprised of married mothers who earn more than their husbands. Their families’ median income was almost $80,000 dollars a year.

For more on what these trends are and what they suggest about the changing dynamics of work and family life, we turn to Paul Taylor, an author of the report and executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. And Ellen Galinsky, she is the president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute.

And welcome. Welcome to you both.

And, for the record, I’m a member of the institute’s board.

I want to say to Paul Taylor first, this is a dramatic change. I mean, from 50 years ago, women were, what, 10 — or mothers …

PAUL TAYLOR, Executive Vice President, Pew Research Center: About 10 percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ten percent of families. They were the — or 10 percent of them were women who were the principal or single breadwinner. Today, it’s 40 percent.

PAUL TAYLOR: And this — this really captures the — a half-century change, the movement of women into the work force, all of the challenges that presents to women and to men and to their children in terms of work-family balance.

And, as you said in your setup piece, demographically, it’s two very different groups of women, the single mothers who tend to be at the lower end of the socioeconomic scales, and the wives who outearn their husbands. And both of these groups have been growing. And what connects them both is that work is increasingly an economic necessity.

Of course, it’s a choice that women make and men make as well. But the majority of households with children now have a mother who works. That change — the public accepts that change, approves of that change. In addition to showing the census data, we did our own survey about attitudes towards this, and we find a public that at one level very accepting of it and approving of it. Everybody gets the fact that in today’s economy, you need two incomes. And, certainly, if you’re a single mother, you need an income to raise children.

But there are reservations and concerns about whether this is best for children, and even some concerns about whether this is best for the marriage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to get at the attitudes, Paul Taylor, but first, what do we know about why this has happened? What are the background trends that have brought this on? How much of it is the economy?

PAUL TAYLOR: Well, a tremendous amount is the economy.

And we know over the last 40 or 50 years that the changes in the economy have been tougher on men than on women. And the kinds of industries that used to provide the middle-class jobs for men who didn’t have as much education as others, those are the ones that have contracted, and men have struggled over the last 30, 40, 50 years.

So the reaction within families is for women, wives to pick up the slack. And certainly if you have single-parent households, typically women, that’s not slack picking up. This is how you keep the family afloat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ellen Galinsky, Family Work Institute does a lot of research on these issues. What do you see in these numbers?

ELLEN GALINSKY, President and Co-Founder, Families and Work Institute: We have seen the same trend in our national study of the changing work force.

And we have seen that there’s actually a pretty big gap. We look at women who earn at least 10 percent more than their husbands and have found that that is 27 percent of all dual-earner families. And you have 80 percent of families — of people who are couples in the work force where both of them work. So it certainly is the new normal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ellen Galinsky, staying with you, what about this discrepancy that Paul just described between that chunk of these women who are working with children who are single parents, and those who are outearning their husbands? What do you see there?

ELLEN GALINSKY: Well, we talk about choice, and choice so important to our American way of living, but a lot of families don’t feel that they have choices, whether they’re in a couple or not.

If we go back to the recession that wasn’t too long ago, at least initially, men lost most of the jobs, and, in fact, women went into the work force or stayed in the work force to keep their families afloat. We find that women bring in about 45 percent of family income in dual-earner families.

When I started to do this research, women’s work was called “pin money.” Now we found as early as 1995 that women define themselves as caring for their families as being both economic providers and nurturers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul …

ELLEN GALINSKY: And men have changed, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead. I’m sorry. I interrupted

ELLEN GALINSKY: Oh, no.

Men have changed, too. I mean, we find that men want to be more involved in their families. It’s not just their wife or their partner saying, do more, share, share more, help. We find that men want to be more involved in — particularly with their kids. And if you look at men of different ages, younger men, millennials, Gen Xers and boomers, the younger men will spend a lot more time, even if they have got young kids, than the older men.

So, there’s a real societal shift in men, too, in wanting to be more involved with their kids and with their families.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Paul Taylor, picking up on that attitude point that you brought up at the outset, how are people looking on this? Are they pleased about it? Are they feeling something is out of whack? What are you seeing?

PAUL TAYLOR: I think they are of two minds. They are living this change and it’s dramatic and almost everybody lives it.

And when we asked, do you want to go back to the old world, the traditional — with women in their traditional roles, by which we mean sort of just the homemaker, 80 percent say no. So, that change is there and the public accepts that. And they see the economic value and necessity of women in the workplace.

But we asked the question, well, what’s best for children? Is it best if the father stays home and cares for the kids full-time? Eight percent say that’s best for children. Is it best if the mother stays home and cares for the kid full-time? Fifty-one percent say that’s best.

So you have attitudes changing, but you still have the traditional template that exercises some influence on the way people think about this. To pick up on Ellen’s point, we did a big time-use survey over the last 50 years. There’s no question fathers are doing more at home. They don’t do as much as mothers. They only do about half as much in terms of the housework and child care. But it’s more than they used to.

And they want to do more. But women and mothers are still on the front lines of caring for the kids. That’s just the way things are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ellen, what about the children? You have looked at that question closely, and also what the children think about this.

ELLEN GALINSKY: Well, in the Pew study, I think it was interesting that the younger you were, the less likely you were to hold those traditional values.

So, we see a values shift. I did a study where I asked children if they could make one change, only one change, that would improve the way their mother’s or father’s work affect their life, what would that be? And most adults thought that kids would wish more for more time, because we tend to see as time mainly.

What kids wished — and I think this is important — is that their parents would be less tired and stressed. The majority of kids wished for that. So, it’s — you know, when we look at, is work good or bad for kids, it depends. It depends on the job that you have. Research shows that very clearly.

It depends on what your beliefs are, and it depends on the quality of the care or education you have for your children when you’re not there. So the impact on children really comes out to the fact that you can’t tell very much about how a child is going to turn out simply because that child’s mother works.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s not just the time. It’s the quality of the time and the attention.

All right, Ellen Galinsky, Paul Taylor, we thank you.

PAUL TAYLOR: Thanks for having us.

ELLEN GALINSKY: Thank you.