“A record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.” – Executive Summary, “Breadwinner Moms”

“Breadwinner Moms,” a recently released report from Pew Social & Demographic Trends, suggests, on its face, that gender equality in the labor force is perhaps closer than advocates for women’s rights would have us believe. The authors note that, as of 2011, “a record 40%” of households with children had mom as the primary breadwinner, up from 11% in 1960. There are a number of large-scale social and economic issues reflected in these seemingly straightforward numbers—changing household structures and trends in family formation; increasing female participation in higher education and the labor force; rising costs of living and stagnant wage growth that necessitate multiple earners within a family; and the lingering effects of the recession on labor market participation.

Moving beyond the initial “40%” number shows that there are really two populations being discussed: (1) single mother families and (2) married couple families in which the wife earns more than her husband. Using the term “breadwinner” with respect to women in single-mother families belies the economic realities of their situation. Single moms are the only potential earners in the family; many earn low (or no) wages and rely on public assistance to get by. This topic will be explored in greater depth in Virginia by Annie in our next blog post.

Discussions of the second population, married couples with “breadwinning” wives, gloss over problematic economic issues underpinning this shift, such as the disproportionate impact of the recession in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing. While two earner families may create new challenges at home, such as negotiating child care and housework, and yield divergent opinions on what’s best for children, they also reflect a basic economic reality for many American families: one income is not enough. I was also troubled by the use of the term “breadwinner”—traditionally used to describe a household in which a single earner is able to support the entire family unit—to describe two earner households in which one partner is earning more than the other. Moreover, the wage gap between husbands and wives was never made clear; how much more are these “breadwinning” moms actually earning compared to their husbands? Let’s take a quick look at the 2011 American Community Survey data for Virginia.

Two-Earner or “Traditional Breadwinner” Families Most Common

In Virginia in 2011, just over 1.5 million women were married and living with their spouse. Forty-two percent—nearly 623,000 of these married couples—had at least one dependent child under the age of 18. Of these families, 62 percent had both mom and dad in the labor force. The husband was the sole wage earner in 30% of families while the wife was the sole provider in 5% of families. In just under three percent of households, neither parent was employed.

Selected Economic and Family Characteristics by Parental Labor Force Participation, Virginia, 2011

Economic and Family Characteristics

In 2011, the median income for two earner households ($103,000) was substantially higher than other household types, reflecting the earnings power of two (typically full-time) workers. The “traditional breadwinner” families, in which only the husband was working, had the second highest median income, with nearly $79,000, while the female breadwinner households earned substantially less, reporting median incomes of only $57,000.

“Traditional Breadwinner” Families Likely to Transition to Two Earner Households

The mothers and fathers in families in which the husband is the sole provider are younger, on average, than both two earner and female breadwinner families. They also have more children (2.22) and younger children (average age of youngest child is 6) compared to other families. Many of these households may transition into two earner households as their children grow older and enter full-time schooling. In addition, eleven percent of the mothers in these families are currently unemployed, meaning that they are actively looking for work and not staying at home by choice.

Female Breadwinner Households Reflect Economic Necessity

Many families are relying on a single breadwinner because the other partner is unemployed or otherwise unable to work. In the 33,000 households in which mom was the sole provider, forty-two percent of fathers were unemployed. In addition, 19 percent of husbands in female breadwinner households reported a disability—much higher than the overall disability rate of 4.7% among married men with dependent kids

Male/Female Earnings Differences in Two Earner Households

Among the 623,000 married households with kids under the age of 18 in Virginia in 2011, nearly 384,000 were dual-earner families. In the vast majority of these families, husbands earn more than their wives; wives earn more than their husbands in 26 percent of these households. While dual-earner families had the highest median income overall ($103,000), the median income of female breadwinner households is slightly lower ($98,200) than households in which the husband earns the same as, or more than, his wife ($104,250).

Wife’s Income Compared to Husband’s in Two Earner Families with Dependent Children Under 18, Virginia, 2011

 Income Difference Wife vs Husband

When examining how much more wives earn than their husbands in these “female breadwinner” households, a number of women are nearly at parity with their husbands, earning less than $5,000 more than their spouse. A fairly substantial proportion, however, out earn their partners by $10,000 or more, with 4% of wives reporting earnings that are at least $50,000 more than their spouse’s income. In these households, however, overall household income is quite high, with both partners typically earning high salaries.


 In Virginia, as in the nation, dual-earner families are the norm, reflecting both changing gender roles and increasing costs of living. While traditional breadwinner families are common, with the father the sole provider in nearly one-third of married families with dependent children, these families may soon transition to dual-earner households as their younger children grow older and mom can more readily enter the workforce. Among two earner households, husbands out earn their wives in nearly three quarters of families. In households in which wives earn substantially more than their husbands, both mothers and fathers are earning high incomes.

True “female breadwinner” households, in which women are the sole providers, are a small proportion of married couple households. Analysis suggests that barriers to husband’s employment, such as unemployment and disability, may drive these patterns more than significantly changing gender roles in which mothers “bring home the bacon” and men transition to the role of stay-at-home dad. Compared to two earner and traditional breadwinner families, these female breadwinner households are in an economically precarious position, with lower median incomes and greater reliance on social safety net programs, such as food stamps.

Rebecca Tippett is a Research Associate at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service where she studies household economic well-being and produces population estimates and projections.