The Pew Research Report, Breadwinner Moms, Misleading Headlines and the Challenges of Dual-Income Households

The recent Pew Research Report focuses on “The Rise of Breadwinner Moms“. However, if you look beyond the headline into the data, the real take-away should be that the clear majority of households are “dual-earner/shared-care”- why don’t employers and our society realize this and start adapting for long-term success?

The Pew Study documents the frequency of different types of dual-income households
The Pew Study tracks the changes in household earnings over 50 years

The headline of the new Pew Study (released May 29th) is “Breadwinner Moms“- as their research shows that 40% of US households with kids either have a single mother as sole provider or have a dual-income arrangement in which the wife out-earns the husband (this caused the oldwhiteguys at FoxNews to wig out!)

Like most headlines, this is somewhat misleading. They only get to the 40% number by cobbling together the 11% never-married single mother households, the 14% single-mother-divorced households and the 15% of dual-parent households with female breadwinners. These are kinda three separate groups, no?

If you really dive into the data, what you find is that only 15% of two-parent families and 22.5% of dual-income families have the wife as the primary earner. While this is notable, and represents larger percentages than in the past, the fact is the vast, vast majority of families and dual-income families rely on the husbands for the larger share of the income.

The real take-away from the Pew Study should be that dual-income couples are the norm, and have been for some time.

About 60% of married couples with children have dual incomes (an all-time high). Only about 30% of married couples with children have a male-breadwinner-female caretaker arrangement (an all-time low).

I’ve written about some of the advantages of dual-career arrangements before (here and here). Of course, many different arrangements can work depending on spousal preferences, financial needs and especially the children’s’ needs- I’m not making value judgments here (as I was wrongfully accused of in this HuffPo piece). Research has shown that these advantages include:

  • Dual-income almost always means more income
  • Dual-incomes take the pressure off one spouse to be a sole provider, allowing that person more financial flexibility to choose meaningful work, change jobs, start a business, etc.
  • Dual-income families are significantly less likely to get divorced, in part because it alleviates financial pressures, but also because spouses may have more in common and may have a greater ability to relate to each other’s work and home challenges. (see this research study from the American Journal of Sociology)
  • Dual-income arrangements may force couples to develop the skills and perspectives to coordinate/communicate/work together/share care when running their households, creating a more integrated, team-like approach.

But dual-income arrangements can also be very hard to successfully navigate. In fact, in the Pew study, almost 3/4 of dual-income couples stated that their work makes it harder to raise their children. There are many barriers that “dual-income-shared-care couples” face- at work, at home, and in society.

Things are changing, but the vast majority of dual-income household rely on the husband for the primary income
Things are changing, but the vast majority of dual-income household rely on the husband for the primary income

Last week, I attended Thirdpath Institute’s Work-Family Pioneering Leaders Summit, where the focus was on how to help families develop ways in which they can more successfully share caregiving and provider roles outside of the “all-in” approach to careers, and how to encourage more supportive workplaces. The summit was awesome (and I’ll be writing a follow-up piece on the summit soon). We discussed the following barriers to successful dual-earner/shared care approaches, including:

  • Rigid workplaces and careers
  • “Work-first” and “All-in” workplace cultures
  • Men in dual-income couples who are still in a “sole provider” career mindset
  • Women in dual-career couples who are reluctant to share childcare tasks and responsibilities (“maternal gatekeeping”)
  • Societal signals about the proper roles on men and women at home and at work

Ultimately, our society and most workplaces are still set up for a “sole-provider, sole caretaker” world- expecting very long hours and constant “all-in” commitment from employees. This may have been a good model two generations ago, but it is significantly out of step with today’s society.

My headline from the Pew study would be:

The clear majority of households are “dual-earner/shared care”, why don’t employers and our society realize this and start adapting for long-term success?

What do you think about dual-income families? How does your family manage? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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14 thoughts on “The Pew Research Report, Breadwinner Moms, Misleading Headlines and the Challenges of Dual-Income Households

  1. Barbararuth’s excellent comment reminds us of how creative and devoted extended families made things work.

    Nevertheless there are some larger historical trends that need to be understood.

    “The clear majority of households are ‘dual-earner/shared care’, why don’t employers and our society realize this and start adapting for long-term success?”

    For one reason. Because the labour market changed and men’s negotiating position weakened.

    The leave it to Beaver family of the 1950s represented the high point of the single male breadwinner middle class family. What was exceptional about this family form was that one male worker with no more than a high school education (or even less) could –on his own –reliably support his family for years and decades at a decent level and then retire with a pension. This was historically new for the non-salaried, non-white collar working class.

    New with respect to the standard of living (famously documented in the 1960 Middletown study) which differed only marginally from the salaried college educated upper middle class (3 bedroom house vs. 4; 1 car instead of 2).

    But also, and especially, new with respect to the stability of the breadwinner’s lifetime income. Stable employment ended the age old threat of working class penury, a serious problem for social policy both in America and Europe.

    When the male breadwinner worked for poor wages in unstable jobs the family init compensated by sending the children out to work, and, as a last resort, the mother. Also in the US working married mothers with children were a small minority–mostly either farm wives or wives of laid off working men.

    From the point of view of these families, the post war nuclear family was a miracle and a luxury. The children could stay in school and the wife was spared the drudgery of factory work and was Queen in her own home. As the sociologist Gosta Esping Andersen has pointed out in his Social Foundations of the Welfare State (1999), full employment among working class males had huge benefits for society as a whole and made the welfare state possible. With the vast majority of males supporting themselves and families, the burden of mass poverty was relieved at the same time that both consumption and tax revenues increased mAking it possible to expand social programs for the elderly and marginalized poor. The same phenomenon made the Great Society possible in the US.

    What happened was first, the overspending of the Vietnam war (Lyndon Johnson’s “guns and butter”) then the first oil crisis, then the rise of industrial competition from Japan and Germany. Between 1973 and 1982 the wages of working class men with only a high school education dropped by 23pct in real terms. Instead of sending children out to work, the wives went instead. At the same time starting wages for workers were further depressed by three simultaneous phenomena –the explosion in the numbers of single mothers–both divorced and never married; the reentry of middle class mothers, and the entry of the baby boomers into the labour market. So much competition depressed starting wages to the point that in 1977 the “college premium” for newly graduated disappeared had disappeared. Combined with an explosion in key costs of raising a family (housing, education, medical care and gas prices) and the high interest rates of the 1980s, this forces the creation of the dual earner family. For a few professionally educated white women with strong career ambitions it was a huge success. But for most working class, for single mothers, and for most baby boomers, college educated included, it was a nightmare of overwork. Young couples could and did carry mortgages with monthly housing costs 30 times as high as their older generation bosses.

    This was the reason companies did not and have not adapted—they did not have to. Families are vulnerable because their male breadwinners are either gone or themselves vulnerable. The terms of trade that so favored workers and families between 1945 and 1973 have reversed and this is seen in wages, in conditions like working hours and job security and in benefits like pensions and sick pay.

    For everyone the all-in culture is now more extreme. My father mowed the lawn and played catch with me on Saturdays. He was always home by 6.30 at night. My husband went to the office on Christmas Day. Arlie Hochschild documented extreme working class overtime in the Time Bind. Charles Murray has just published Falling Apart about the economic and social decline (the Victorians would say pauperization which is much more than poverty) of the working class.

    What to do? First be productive stable and valuable to your employer. A true win win which is always best.

    Second, consider organising. Some may want to rediscover collective bargaining and collective action, as low wage employees at Walmart, McDonald’s are beginning to do.

    Third, before trying for 1970s legislation like paid maternity and paternity leave, just try to retain and restore 1940s legal protections such as minimum wage levels, overtime pay, holiday pay, minimal job conditions (like the right to know your work schedule in advance (a real problem for retail workers required to be on call for possibly 80 hours in return for 12 hours of actual work and pay).

    But above all, understand that the shift in terms of trade between employers and employees is both the reason for the problems of the dual earner family and the reason that market and state pay little more than lip service to doing anything about it.

    • Wow! First, thank you for the excellent comment and the reminder of the historical and social underpinnings of the work-family dynamic. I agree that the decline of unions, and what I believe to be rampant violations of “unpaid overtime” by “exempt employees” are major contributors.

      Thank you!

  2. I am a middle-aged single with no children. I have always found this discussion extremely frustrating. My family of origin: married parents, two sets of married grandparents – one we lived with, one five blocks away. Though my parents actually bought into the 1960s breadwinner-SAHM ideal, they never realized it: my dad got sick; my mom had to work. Ultimately childcare for my sisters and I was shared by 2 parents and 3 living grandparents. For my parents, childcare segued into eldercare without a break.

    In their earning years, both sets of my grandparents were dual-income couples where a) the husband and wife had equal earning power, b) the husband and wife shared childcare responsibilities, and c) the schedules were staggered. For example, my mother’s mother was a teacher (off in the summer); her husband worked railroads away from home in the summer. During the school year he was the primary caretaker, and during the summer she was the primary caretaker.

    It often strikes me that neither of my grandmothers would relate to specifically feminist rhetoric but would also find extremely foreign the idea that they would want to stay home! They both loved their careers. (My grandmother’s final home care nurse reports that she asked for the nurse’s professional journals so she could “keep up.” She was 92.) For her part, my mother did NOT enjoy staying home and says now (at age 79), “Everybody needs work. Women need work more than men do.” I have HUGE issues (I confess) with the notion that the ability to find fulfillment as a stay-at-home parent is anywhere near as common in women as the numbers who do it reflect. I think SOME men and probably more women can do this. But a “natural” tendency of women? No, that’s propaganda.

    If I had to venture a guess as to my grandmothers’ aspirations, I’d guess these: that their husbands would not have to spend time away to work, that both partners would have been able to increase their income, and that the extra money could be used to aid other family members. (Between them, my grandparents had 38 siblings with varying degrees of personal, professional, and financial success.)

    It amazes me that in 2013, we are still crawling towards something my grandparents, two of four literally born during the reign of Queen Victoria, took for granted.

    • Thank you for this awesome comment.

      Family dynamics have always been more complex and fluid than is commonly perceived. I hope that society at large, and especially workplaces, begin to understand and adapt to reality. I think we’d all be better off, no matter what the particular family arrangement we find ourselves in.

      Thanks for reading and for your very personal and perceptive comment

  3. I totally agree that many companies are out of step with the needs and realities of today’s workers. Employers should offer part-time positions and different kinds of flexible arrangements to match what working parents desire.

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