Report: More Women are Breadwinners

Now can we get policy changes to help them out?

It’s a fact that may come as little surprise to many working women, but a new report from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire has found that the percentage that women contribute to overall family earnings has spiked in the years since the Great Recession. According to the report, women now contribute 47 percent of familial income, up three percentage points from 2007 to 2009, and are increasingly taking on the role of main breadwinner in their households. That number is up from 38 percent in 1988, while contributions from male partners have dropped from 62 percent to 53 percent in that same time frame.

This isn’t all that shocking: Much has been made of the fact that men were disproportionately impacted by the Great Recession, particularly men who were laid off in the prime of their careers. As of 2011, men had lost 4.9 million jobs, while women had lost 2.5 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (A large proportion of that discrepancy is tied to the fact that construction jobs are held predominately by men). As the economy recovered, men did begin getting jobs at a faster rate than women, but many women had already stepped in to help support their families, and it’s anticipated that they’ll remain in the workforce for the next several years to help rebuild depleted bank accounts and ensure financial stability.

Of course, the decision to enter the workforce hasn’t necessarily meant that women were paid the same amount as their male partners. As Kristin Smith, the report’s author, writes, “This large increase in wives’ contribution to family earnings is not due to a large increase in wives’ earnings (in fact, the median earnings of employed wives decreased from $31,041 in 2007 to $30,000 in 2009), but rather to a decrease in husband’s employment and, in turn, earnings.” Smith also notes that more women moving into the role of breadwinners is changing the family dynamic, and putting more stress on couples:

Families that experience male job loss and reduced earnings are stressed. even prior to the recession, working families were feeling work and family stress due to increased time spent working, inflexible workplaces that have not kept pace with changing families, and the lack of policy supports. Policies to support working families, such as paid sick leave and paid family medical leave, affordable quality child care, livable wages, and measures that increase workplace flexibility, could help reduce the work and family conflict that many men and women experience.

It’s a sentiment that the family history professor Stephanie Coontz echoed in her New York Times op-ed this past weekend, as she noted the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking work, The Feminine Mystique. Coontz writes that in the late 1990s and early 2000s the push for gender equality actually stalled as the percentage of Americans preferring the “male breadwinner/female homemaker family model actually rose to 40 percent from 34 percent.” She continues:

“Between 1997 and 2007, the number of full-time working mothers who said they would prefer to work part time increased to 60 percent from 48 percent. In 1997, a quarter of stay-at-home mothers said full-time work would be ideal. By 2007, only 16 percent of stay-at-home mothers wanted to work full time.”

Of course, the Great Recession was a reality that forced a lot of those opinions to change, which explains why now, we’re hearing the call for more workplace flexibility and public policy decisions that could help alleviate the stress that families are feeling. Because isn’t it time to raise the U.S. from it’s last-place ranking for its “work-family policies”? Seems like an obvious choice.