Pew Data: Contrary to Claims, Barely More Mothers Now Than 1960 = Primary Breadwinners

July 22, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

How can one article get so much right and so much wrong (Huffington Post, 7/15/13)? Maybe because it appears in the Huffington Post, but even at that, the article is far superior to your run-of-the-mill HuffPo screed.

The piece is nominally based on some new data from the Pew Research Center about single mothers, single fathers, marriage, divorce, child custody, child support, visitation, etc. The author, Margaret Ryznar, actually knows something about her topic and presents it in a pretty even-handed manner. That alone sets her head and shoulders above most HuffPo articles on motherhood and related topics.

The Pew data were much ballyhooed in the press when they first came out. The main statistic cited, in predictably effusive prose, was that 40% of households now have a woman as their primary earner. To those eager to see women outstrip men in everything, this was good news, but Ryznar points out the obvious.

However, a closer look at the numbers, in conjunction with birth data, suggests otherwise. Notably, while mothers are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households, the same percentage of births are to unmarried mothers. Although the two populations do not perfectly overlap — not every female breadwinner is a single mother — they do to a surprisingly significant extent. Specifically, 8.6 million (63 percent) of women breadwinners in the United States are single mothers…

This would be a different story if the numbers showed that 40 percent of married households had a female breadwinner. But in married households with children today, only 15 percent have women primary earners. This is only a slight increase from the year 1960, when 11 percent of households had breadwinner moms and the rate of births to unmarried women stood only at 5.3 percent.

Ah, comes the dawn! It turns out that, contrary to the valedictions of many, the reason that so many women are the primary earners in their households is that they’re the only earners. They either had a child without the father present, or they divorced him or separated from him. However it came about, the two main reasons for the dramatic rise in women as primary earners are the sharp increases in divorce and single-mother childbearing. As Ryznar points out, the real comparison is between married households with women as the primary breadwinner, now and in the past. In 1960, 11% of married households had a woman as the chief earner; today it’s 15%, i.e. some change, but not much over 53 years.

Ryznar, unlike so many other HuffPo commentators, knows a thing or two about single parenting.

However, the demographic changes underlying the numbers are troublesome in light of numerous studies showing that two-parent households are better for children than one-parent households. Reasons for this include more resources in terms of both money and parenting time.

Even when her grasp starts to slip, Ryznar’s intentions are good. She knows the divorce, child support and visitation “system” is problematic even if she doesn’t quite know why.

The child support system is intended to bridge this financial gap between single moms and married moms, but it is ineffective for many. The U.S. Census Bureau showed that of the $35.1 billion in child support due in 2009, only 61 percent was received, averaging $3,630 per parent. Child support collection becomes even more challenging, if not impossible, when the noncustodial does not have the ability to pay the child support obligation.


Meanwhile, the visitation system that intends to maintain ties between the noncustodial parent and the child is also flawed. While the entire visitation framework aims to protect the child’s best interests, both parents must be willing to facilitate visits because it is difficult and expensive to enforce a court order.

These various defects plaguing the child support and visitation systems are even more problematic given the number of divorces — which currently stands at almost 50 percent of marriages — and the additional number of children relying on these systems as a result. A significant majority of children in the youngest generations will see their parents living in different households.

Actually, the child support system isn’t “supposed to bridge this financial gap between single moms and married moms.” It’s supposed to provide support to the child. I fully understand that custodial mothers often view the money as theirs to do with as they please, but actually it’s meant for the child. And face it, an unmarried mother who earns $23,000 per year, i.e. the average earned by single mothers, and who gets child support from Dad who earns $75,000 isn’t in the same financial position as a woman who earns the same and is married to a man who earns $75k. The married couple is better off.

And Ryznar’s sole quibble with visitation orders is that “parents must be willing to facilitate visits.” That’s part of it of course, but the other part is that courts must enforce those orders. The failure to do so is an open invitation to custodial parents to thwart visitation, which they routinely do.

From there, Ryznar moves on to just getting it wrong.

From this perspective on the data, the policy implications are significant. The most noteworthy is the increased need for quality childcare. If women are both sole income earners and the sole parent, they need affordable and high quality childcare, a challenge on a low income.

Let’s see. Twenty-five percent of all breadwinners in the country are single mothers and their average annual income is $23,000. Forty-three percent of those households fall below the poverty line and Ryznar’s solution is “quality childcare?” I’d like to see Ryznar explain how a woman with kids and $23k in income is going to pay for “quality childcare.” As if to admit the futility of her suggestion, one sentence later, Ryznar admits that such a prospect is “a challenge on a low income.” It’s not a challenge, it’s an impossibility.

And besides, what Ryznar doesn’t let on about is the fact that there’s no unwritten law requiring single parents to earn so little. Readers might think that single mothers earn so little because of the demands of single parenthood, but it’s not so. We know that because the rapidly-rising tide of single fathers averages about 50% more in earnings every year than do their female counterparts.

Ryznar, like so many commentators, takes for granted that unmarried childbearing is here to stay and there’s nothing we can do about. She’s probably right as long as we don’t try, but there’s every reason to do just that. Among other things, we should start teaching children at an early age – say, in sex education class – that two parents are best for children, that it’s irresponsible for a woman to bear a child without a father, except in the most extreme circumstances. And we should teach that, when a family has children, divorce is the last resort. Children need their parents irrespective of the whims of the adults.

But what mostly aggravates me about Ryznar’s article is that every word of it applies to parents of either sex. Custodial parents need child support from the non-custodial parent, but you’d never know from Ryznar’s piece that mothers are actually worse about paying than are fathers, or that they’re far less likely to be ordered to pay anything at all.

My question to Ryznar is “Why not write an article about both sexes, mothers and fathers?” Why couch everything in terms of mothers? Why leave custodial fathers out of the picture entirely? After all, the same Pew study she refers to also informs us that there are now 2.6 million single fathers in the country, a number that’s growing far more rapidly than that of single mothers. Everything Ryznar says about mothers is true of fathers? Why not include them?

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