Yet the trend is not necessarily due to women making more than their husbands. Nearly two-thirds of this group of women workers are single mothers, and just 37 percent are married and have a higher income than their spouses. While the median total family income in houses where mothers earn more than their husbands was nearly $80,000 in 2011, much higher than the national median of $57,100 for families with children, it’s just $23,000 for single mothers’ families – just over a quarter of what families with married breadwinner mothers earn.
The share of mothers who out earn their husbands has increased nearly fourfold since 1960, while the share of families led by a single mother has more than tripled.
The rise of single mothers supporting their families does not necessarily tell a positive story for women’s earnings. Households headed by single mothers earn less than half of what households with a married couple earn, or $32,597 compared to $71,830, according to a report from New York University’s Wagner School. Single mothers posses only 4 percent of the wealth of single fathers: a mere $100 compared to $25,300.
Part of this can be explained by the fact that a majority of single mothers are employed in the low-wage retail and service industries. In fact, according to a report from Legal Momentum, single parents account for 40 percent of low-wage workers in the U.S., far more than in other developed countries.
The Legal Momentum report also makes it clear that American policy does little to make life easier on single parents, which it dubs the country where they are the worst off. Single parents in the U.S. live with the least generous income support system, lack the paid leave policies that other countries offer, must wait longer for early childhood education programs to begin, have the highest rate of no health care coverage, and have a low rate of child support receipt.
The rising tide of breadwinning married mothers is gaining momentum but is still not the structure of a typical family. Three-quarters of married couples are those where a husband makes more than his wife, although that has fallen from 95 percent in 1960. And studies have found that women who make less than high-earning husbands, which is likely given the gender wage gap, are more likely to leave the workforce, giving up all earning potential that might outmatch their spouse.