More married mothers earn more than their husbands

For this Washington Post article by Brigid Schulte, I did some calculations that allowed her to add, “In a trend accelerated by the recent recession” to the first sentence. When you line up the numbers this way — percentage of married mothers with children present who have higher incomes their husbands — there was a steep acceleration:

pew-post-trendSource: My calculation from Census and American Community Survey data from IPUMS.

My explanation for this was:

“The decade of the 2000s witnessed the most rapid change in the percentage of married mothers earning more than their husbands of any decade since 1960,” said Philip Cohen, a University of Maryland sociologist who studies gender and family trends. “This reflects the larger job losses experienced by men at the beginning of the Great Recession. Also, some women decided to work more hours or seek better jobs in response to their husbands’ job loss, potential loss or declining wages.”

The trend was reported by Pew Research in this report, titled “Breadwinner Moms,” which wrote:

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, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The share was just 11% in 1960.

I just did the married mothers earning more, and added the data from the years between 2000 and 2011, to show the recession-period acceleration of the higher-earning mothers. Pew added polling numbers about attitudes toward women’s income, and Schulte added exemplary interviews.


A wife who earns $1 more than her husband for one year is not the “breadwinner” of the family. That’s not what made “traditional” men the breadwinners of their families — that image is of a long-term pattern in which the husband/father earns all or almost all of the money, which implies a more entrenched economic domination.

However, she can be the “primary breadwinner,” a post-1970s concept acknowledging the rise of secondary breadwinners (usually women) in families. Here is the Google ngrams trend showing appearances of “primary breadwinner” as a fraction of all uses of “breadwinner” since 1920 (click to enlarge):


I have previously complained about lumping single mothers together with higher-earning wives to construct an image of “female breadwinners.” That’s partly because the $1-more-for-one-year problem, and partly that I object to using the single-mother trend to inflate descriptions of women’s advancement.

Anyway, it’s hard to capture the trends without overdoing it, but Brigid Schulte and the Pew authors (Wendy Wang, Kim Parker and Paul Taylor) did a nice job.

12 thoughts on “More married mothers earn more than their husbands

  1. From the first graph it doesn’t appear that anything is accelerating in the past decade – it looks more like a linear trend since 1970.


  2. I know, right? I heard this really interesting TED talk about women taking over, like, the whole economy. Hannah something, have you heard it? 😉


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