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Mom is the breadwinner, but is the family ready?

June 04, 2013

| Money Rates Columnist

When a Pew Research study revealed last week that women earn the primary or sole income in 40 percent of U.S. households with children, it marked the latest blow to a species whose glory years may be long gone: the American male breadwinner.

In 1960, only 11 percent of women were the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, according to Pew. But today's female breadwinners consist of a considerable percentage of both single mothers (63 percent) and wives who out-earn their husbands (37 percent) -- two groups whose numbers have spiked over the last half-century.

Mom's changing role

It remains unclear, however, whether men and women are fully prepared for this shift. Pew data reveal some seemingly contradictory stances among respondents on whether the rise in breadwinner moms is good for American families.

While another Pew study from 2012 indicated that 79 percent of the respondents reject the notion that women should return to their traditional motherly roles, the figures from the breadwinner study show that 51 percent of respondents feel that children are better off when the mother stays home and doesn't work. Only 8 percent said the same for fathers.

The topic of single motherhood received its own mixed response, with 64 percent saying the trend toward single motherhood is a "big problem." But this marked a decrease from 2007, when 71 percent indicated the same opinion.

What about Dad?

The last five decades have seen a dramatic shift for American fathers. After providing the sole or primary source of income for 89 percent of American families in 1960, they have since seen this share eroded by both single motherhood -- which is more than three times more common today than it was in 1960 -- and higher relative earnings for women. While only 15 percent of wives out-earned their husbands in 2011, according to Pew, that figure was a mere 4 percent in 1960.

These changes may also be contributing to struggles today on how mothers and fathers handle financial decision-making. A recent study conducted for MoneyRates.com showed that American husbands are roughly twice as likely to take the lead decision-making role in families in which one spouse makes the majority of financial decisions -- despite the fact that 84 percent of women felt they were equally or better qualified to take on the family's lead role.

The evolution of family finances

While not every family may be prepared for Mom to become its leading financial figure, these changes are hardly new. The trends detailed in the Pew study are more the result of a continuing evolution than any sudden shifts. American mothers have spent decades accepting new roles to help their families achieve financial security, and there are few signs their prominence in family finances will fade anytime soon.

As for husbands, it may be irrational for them to worry that losing the breadwinner role to their wives will necessarily lead to negatives. The Pew study found that families who have breadwinner mothers out-earn families with breadwinner fathers by an average of about $2,000 a year.

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