Asain MotherApplying findings to Virginia from a Pew Social & Demographic Trends report, two previous blog posts examined breadwinner mothers in Virginia.  In the first post we found differences between married and unmarried breadwinner moms:

  • Households where the breadwinning mom was married had higher income levels
  • Married breadwinning moms had higher educational attainment
  • Even with the same educational attainment, married breadwinning moms earned more than unmarried moms (and worked more hours on average).

In the second post we examined differences between two groups of unmarried breadwinning moms – those who are single and those who are cohabiting with a partner.  We found that, between these two groups, a greater proportion of cohabiting moms and their children live in poverty, and that lower earnings among cohabiting moms are found even when we hold age and educational attainment constant.

In this post, we will wrap up by focusing on single mothers, the group that makes up the largest share (54%) of breadwinning mothers. [1] 

In light of stereotypes about single mothers represented in popular media, findings from the American Community Survey are particularly important to describing single motherhood in Virginia.

Single mothers in Virginia

The data about single mothers in Virginia points to an important finding: the lives of single mothers who have never been married is quite different from those who have been married before, even when holding constant age, educational attainment, or age of the children. For example, in Virginia, single mothers have median household incomes of about $28,000.  But when we examine marital history, we find some variation around that number.

  • Previously-married mothers (now separated, divorced, or widowed) have median household incomes of slightly over $35,000.
  • The median household income of never-married mothers is closer to $19,000.

As suggested in the Pew report, this is not the only difference between these groups.  Never-married mothers are, on average, younger, and more often in poverty than their previously married counterparts.

  • While only about a quarter of Virginia’s previously married mothers live below the Federal poverty line, slightly more than half of never-married mothers do.
  • On average, previously-married mothers are better educated than their never-married counterparts— the share of previously-married mothers with at least a Bachelor’s degree (27 percent) is more than twice the share of never-married mothers with the same level of education (13 percent).

Single Mothers in Virginia, 2011 [2]


Any and all of these characteristics play important roles in employment and earnings patterns.  But there’s another factor which may also come into play: children’s age.

Single mothers with young children

About 3 in 10 of Virginia’s single mothers live with a child under the age of 5.  When we look at marital history, again, we see variation around that figure.  Never-married mothers are more likely to be caring for young children than their previously-married counterparts: 2 in 10 previously-married mothers are living with a young child, as opposed to 4 in 10 never-married mothers.

The median wage income among never-married mothers with young children is noticeably lower than that of previously-married mothers with kids in the same age group, and less than half the wage income of previously-married mothers with older children.  The same pattern holds when looking at median household income.

 Single Mothers (age 25+) in Virginia, 2011, by presence of young children


Since previously-married single mothers are, on average, older than never-marrieds, it is reasonable to assume that the difference in income may be a result simply of the older women having had more workforce experience. However, even when we look only at single mothers over the age of 25—as in the above table—never-married single mothers with young children continue to have median wage income less than half that of previously-married single mothers raising older children.

Single mothers and employment

The employment rate among single mothers—previously- or never-married—is notably high.  Yet, clearly, some of these mothers are not working outside the home; this choice is more likely among never married women with young children. While some media accounts and common stereotypes suggest that these women may be taking the easy way out by relying on government assistance to bolster sub-poverty household income, other factors may be involved:

  • The lower educational attainment among never-married mothers with young children may make it difficult for them to find employment.
  • Because single motherhood often poses challenges in terms of balancing work demands and childcare, single mothers with young children may be more likely to be terminated from their jobs.
  • Many single mothers may work less than they would otherwise in order to care, at no cost, for their children. With the average annual cost of full-time child care in Virginia ranging from $5,000 to $8,000 in 2011, not working outside the home may be a wise strategic decision for single moms, and this trade-off may be particularly worthwhile for mothers with lower earnings potential.
  • Mothers with young children may prioritize caregiving for their children above seeking formal employment.

What do breadwinner moms have to tell us?

These three blog posts have provided data on households in which women are not only working within the family as mothers raising children, but also are working for pay outside the home.  Our cultural narratives about the value of families and children often conflict with the norms of the workplace, particularly when the worker is raising children alone and/or has limited employment options due to low educational attainment or lack of resources for childcare, transportation, or other elements needed to allow full engagement in work.  The story of breadwinner moms in Virginia reflects the full range of opportunities and limitations.  As we discuss these women and their families, it is important to understand the differences among them and what, collectively, they tell us.

[1] Note that this group includes unmarried mothers living without a partner, as well as a small group of married mothers living without their spouses.

[2] Remember that household income is higher than salary/wage income because it reflects income sources like rent, investments, or government assistance, to name a few.