A new study by the Pew Research Center reveals that today that number has reached 40 percent.
Single mothers head many of these families, a situation particularly troubling because of the social and economic problems so often found in homes without fathers. However, more and more of these are two-parent families in which the mother earns more than the father.
There are many factors at work here. The decline of traditional “male” jobs in manufacturing and construction plays a part; even men who found work in those fields have not seen much growth in wages. However, jobs that women have traditionally filled — teachers, nurses, office administrators — have seen an increase in salary and benefits.
Credit also must be given to women themselves. Today, more women than men are likely to hold bachelor’s degrees, and any analysis of college enrollment will show that this education gap will continue to grow. In 1960, the wife had more education than the husband in only 7 percent of married couples. In 2011, husbands and wives in most families had pulled about even; however, in 23 percent of the families, it was the wife who was better educated.
Credit also the women’s equality movement of the 1960s that encouraged women to step out of traditional roles. That was followed by the raging inflation of the 1970s, which made two-incomes essential for middle-class living. Today, 47 percent of the American workforce is made up of women.
The public response to these changes is mixed. While nearly 80 percent of those polled reject the idea that women should return to traditional roles, 21 percent said mothers of young children working outside the home is not a good idea.
Meanwhile, many schools and workplaces still follow what is called a “male-breadwinner model,” which assumes that wives stay at home and care for children, or if they do work it is to supplement the family income, not provide most of it.
Private and public employers have been slow to realize that the “male-breadwinner model” is obsolete. In time, both may discover that their best employees and most energetic voters will be women who need child-care support in the workplace and scheduling to accommodate school hours. In the meantime, husbands will find that their role in rearing children must change if parenting is to be successful.