Research Findings

Mothers are the primary earners in growing numbers of families with children

February 10, 2022

About 70% of U.S. moms can expect to be primary financial providers before their first child turns 18.

In a substantial number of families with children, mothers, whether single or partnered, are now the primary breadwinner. More than 40 percent of American mothers solely or primarily support their minor children through their own earnings in any given year.

For most of the 20th century, except in wartime, says historian Stephanie Coontz, women who were the primary source of their children’s income were generally unmarried, divorced, or widowed. But for the past two decades, the most rapid growth in breadwinning mothers has been among partnered women. As late as 2000, only 15 percent of primary-earning mothers were married. But by 2017, married women accounted for almost 40 percent of mothers whose earnings were the primary support for their families, based on the 1990-2000 Censuses and 2010-2017 American Community Surveys.

These figures actually understate the chance that a mother will at some point be the primary economic support for her children, since they represent only a static cross-section of families in any one year. The number of years that mothers primarily rely on their own earnings to support their children provides a better picture of children’s financial dependence on moms.

In our study released November 2021 in Socius, “Children’s Financial Dependence on Mothers: Propensity and Duration,” Kelly Raley, Joanna Pepin, and I use recent data from the Census Bureau’s 2014-2017 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to estimate a mother’s chance of ever being the family breadwinner over her first 18 years of motherhood, as well as the average duration of a mother’s role as primary household earner. We conservatively define breadwinning as earning at least 60 percent of her household’s earnings in the previous year.

We find that about 70 percent of American mothers can expect to be the primary breadwinner in their household for at least one year. The average time such mothers can expect to spend as primary breadwinner is nearly 6 years.  

The experience of being the family’s primary breadwinner occurs across all educational levels. We find that 62 percent of mothers without a high school diploma will support their households at some time during the first 18 years of motherhood, a figure that rises to 67% among those with a high school diploma.

About 71 percent of mothers who are college graduates will at some point bring in more than 60 percent of household earnings, and a whopping 76% of mothers who attend college but do not obtain a degree will serve as primary breadwinners for their household for some period of time. These mothers also average a longer duration as primary breadwinners. Mothers with “some college” but no degree are not a small part of the population. Thirty percent of all mothers fall into this category.

What does this pattern tell us about families’ dependence on mothers’ earnings?

First, it indicates that those mothers with the highest incomes do not necessarily have the highest risk of becoming the families’primary income source. In fact, family earnings drop significantly in the year that mothers become primary earners even among stably partnered households, and families in which mothers are primary earners have significantly lower earnings than families in which fathers are primary earners at all educational levels.

These facts tell us that while all mothers face the real possibility of becoming their families’ primary financial support at some point in time, risk is patterned by the probability that male partners will experience income losses, job instability, or exit the household altogether. Although mothers’ own human capital generally raises the likelihood they will become family breadwinners, women college graduates are more likely to partner with stably employed men college graduates, thus lowering their risk of becoming primary earners.

In short, many American children already depend primarily on their mothers’ earnings for their well-being, and that most will likely do so at some point in their childhood. For many families the economic consequences of mothers’ COVID-19 related employment interruptions will last well into the future, and research shows that even just a few years of economic deprivation or insecurity pose long-term risks to children.

The COVID-19 pandemic reveals the tremendous risks to children when mothers cannot earn money for their families because they do not have access to childcare and/or paid caregiving leave. In large part because of the lack of such supports, mothers have experienced job losses at over twice the rate of fathers in this crisis.  

It is time for policy-makers and social planners to recognize the near ubiquity of children’s reliance on their mothers’ earnings across all sections of the population, and develop a care infrastructure that can support mother’s financial imperatives.

Read more

Glass, Jennifer L., R. Kelly Raley, and Joanna R. Pepin. “Children’s Financial Dependence on Mothers: Propensity and Duration.” Socius 2021.

image: Eiler, Lyntha Scott via wikicommons

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