WASHINGTON — A record number of American women are now the sole or primary breadwinners in their families, a sign of the rising influence of working mothers, a new study finds. Mothers now keep finances afloat in 40 percent of households with children, up from just 11 percent in 1960.
While most of these families are headed by single mothers, a growing number are married mothers who bring in more income than their husbands, according to a study released today by the Pew Research Center.
As the numbers have shifted, however, public attitudes have remained mixed regarding the impact of working mothers on families.
Demographers say the change is all but irreversible and is likely to bring added attention to child care policies, as well as government safety nets for vulnerable families.
"This change is just another milestone in the dramatic transformation we have seen in family structure and family dynamics over the past 50 years or so," said Kim Parker, associate director with the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project.
"Women's roles have changed, marriage rates have declined the family looks a lot different than it used to. The rise of breadwinner moms highlights the fact that, not only are more mothers balancing work and family these days, but the economic contributions mothers are making to their households have grown immensely."
Samantha Salbeck is an estimator and project manager for a Ripon construction firm that installs underground lines for public projects. The mother of three said her family ties to the business enabled her to learn the job, while her husband's earnings in the welding trade faded.
"I think mothers are forced to work these days," she said. "It just costs so much to raise a family, and women have gotten smarter about it, getting an education and pursuing positions that women would not typically pursue 10 to 20 years ago."
Salbeck, who has worked full time since 2002, said the wages for welders dropped after the economy crashed, and her husband has worked sporadically in recent years. He took a job as an auto detailer in Oakdale, where they live, so he can be close to the children.
She takes the kids to school weekday mornings before arriving to work at 8:30 and sees them for two or three hours after work before they are in bed. "I love my job, but love my kids. I feel torn with my time," Salbeck said.
The trend is being driven mostly by long-term changes in demographics, including higher rates of education and labor force participation dating back to the 1960s women's movement. Today, women are more likely than men to hold bachelor's degrees, and they make up nearly half 47 percent of the American work force.
But recent changes in the economy, too, have played a part. Big job losses in manufacturing and construction, fields that used to provide high pay to a mostly male work force, have lifted the relative earnings of married women, even among those in midlevel positions such as teachers, nurses and administrators. The jump in working women has been especially prominent among those who are mothers from 37 percent in 1968 to 65 percent in 2011 reflecting in part increases for those who went looking for jobs to lift sagging family income after the recent recession.
In all, 13.7 million U.S. households with children under age 18 now include mothers who are breadwinners. Of those, 5.1 million, or 37 percent, are married, while 8.6 million, or 63 percent, are single. The income gap between the families is large $80,000 in median family income for married couples vs. $23,000 for single mothers.
Victoria Beck of Modesto wrote on The Bee's Facebook page that she's raising two children on her own without public aid or financial help from their father. "I would be considered low income, I guess," she wrote. "My kids do not want for much. They get everything they need and a lot of what they want."
Among all U.S. households with children, the share of married breadwinner moms has jumped from 4 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 2011. For single mothers, the share has increased from 7 percent to 25 percent.
While roughly 79 percent of Americans reject the notion that women should return to their traditional roles, only 21 percent of those polled said the trend of more mothers of young children working outside the home is a good thing for society, according to the Pew survey. Roughly three in four adults said the increasing number of women working for pay has made it harder for parents to raise children.
Rebekah Bounmany of Modesto was upbeat about her current role as working mom. She and her husband juggle parenting with attending college full time. "I feel like my (two) kids greatly benefit from having their dad at home with them while I am at work," she wrote on The Bee's Facebook page. "My boys learn things that only their dad can teach them."
David Estrella wrote that he was the breadwinner for many years, but "once my wife graduated college, she makes waaaay more than me. And that's OK."
Mark Ross of Modesto suggested that many men are shirking their responsibility. "A real man doesn't run out on his family; a real man wakes up every morning and provides for his family. Half of men these days are nothing but bums," he wrote.
On the Net: www.pewsocialtrends.org
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson contributed to this report.