Male Breadwinning Still Dominates in Families with Kids

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We often see commentary to the effect that men do less housework and childcare than do women, facts borne out by many authoritative datasets like those produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The gist of that commentary is usually that, if men would only “step up” and do their share, then women would be freed to become equal in the workplace.  That is, men hold women back.

Now, as I’ve often said, the weaknesses of that commentary are too many to address in a limited space.  But generally, they boil down to the fact that, if a woman wants her life to emphasize paid work, there’s nothing preventing her from doing so.  The simple fact is that most women want children and, having given birth to them, aren’t generally very enthusiastic about leaving them behind to rush back to the office.  They didn’t have them just to have them; they want to love and nurture them too.  The further fact is that women’s biological makeup urges them to do just that.  The biochemical connections between mothers and their offspring have always created parent-child bonds that all but demand that Mom see to her children before anything else.  This shouldn’t be news, but, in our Brave New World, certain basics sometimes seem to be.

Now, given that propensity for mothers to care for their children, comes a corollary – that Dad be the family’s resource provider.  The one tends to beget the other.  Needless to say, I would never contend that mothers don’t work and earn.  Of course most of them do.  But the great majority of primary family breadwinners are men and the main reason is that mothers tend to prioritize childcare.

Now, as I’ve said countless times, the fact that women tend to spend more time caring for children than do fathers in no way suggests that kids don’t need their dads.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We humans are a bi-parental species.  That means that both mothers and fathers care for children, that mothers and fathers tend to parent differently, that kids need both types of parenting and that kids form all-important attachments early in life to both of their parents.  Given all that, when parents divorce, it is imperative that children maintain their real, lasting and necessary relationships with both Mom and Dad.  Shared parenting is a necessity for healthy children and therefore for a healthy society.

Which brings us to this article (Institute for Family Studies, 1/12/20).  It seems there’s been some thought to the effect that, while fathers emphasizing paid work and mothers childcare may dominate the behavior of the less educated, those with college degrees have moved away from the old paradigm.  That was always a dubious proposition to me and the linked-to piece demonstrates it to be more wishful thinking than reality.

Today, men still earn the majority of the income in most married-parent families. A study by University of Chicago economist Marianne Bertrand and her colleagues found that husbands and wives were less likely to report a “very happy” marriage when the wife earned more; they were also more likely to report marital difficulties in the last year. A recent Pew survey found that never-married women are much more likely to report that finding a spouse or partner with a “steady job” is “very important” to them. Not surprisingly, a new study found that “the tendency for women to marry men with higher incomes has persisted.”

Clearly, the ideal and the reality of male breadwinning remain alive, at least in some quarters. However, some, such as Richard Reeves, the co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings, have argued that the traditional model is less likely to characterize the marriages and family lives of more educated and affluent Americans. He suggests, for instance, that marriage among the well-educated is less likely to be predicated on male breadwinning.

It turns out that what Reeves was really reporting was less what those educated, affluent folks did than what they said they valued.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two were not the same.  We’ve seen that before.  Several years ago, the Work and Families Institute found that, although people in their 20s voiced strongly egalitarian sentiments about work and family, when the first child came along, they tended to do the usual.  Mom took time off work and Dad redoubled his earnings efforts.

And so it appears in the more recent data.  Researcher Christos Makridis reported that,

I found that areas with a higher male-female employment gap—that is, the percent extra of employed males, relative to employed females—have greater shares of the local population who are married…

The data shows that a one percentage point rise in the male-female employment gap is associated with a 0.347 percent rise in the share of married adults for the areas with the lowest fraction of college or graduate degree workers, but is associated with a 0.79 percent rise for the areas with the highest fraction of college or graduate degree workers.

The results are very similar when using the male-female earnings gap as the proxy for male breadwinning: a one percentage point rise in the male-female earnings gap is associated with a 0.18 percent point rise in the share of married adults in the least educated areas, but with a 0.233 percent rise in the most educated (see Figure 2)…

[W]hat is clear is this: In the United States as a whole, and especially in better-educated communities, when men earn more and work more relative to the women in those communities, a greater share of the local population is married.

Again, this shouldn’t be treated as news.  We’ve long known, for example, that the single greatest predictor of divorce for a man is the loss of his job.  Failure to provide resources is dangerous for men who want to get or remain married.

So, once again, the simple truth is that there’s little evidence for the proposition that women are champing at the bit to get away from their kids and back to the office or plant.  On the contrary, women and men in couples tend to work together to (a) raise their kids and (b) support their families.  That very often means Mom emphasizing childcare and Dad emphasizing paid work.  To most people, that’s neither threatening nor politically suspect, but some still want parents to behave, not according to their best interests and those of their children, but according to an ideology that some give lip-service to, but most reject.  

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