Studies about gender, family, and the workplace inevitably bring out the Neanderthals in American media. This week has been no exception.
On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center released a report on “Breadwinner Moms”—women who are the primary or the only income earners in their families. As you might expect, they are a lot more common than they used to be. In 1960, just 11 percent of families had moms as their primary breadwinners. Today, 40 percent do.
When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and female in society, and the other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it's not antithesis, or it's not competing, it's a complimentary role. We as people in a smart society have lost the ability to have complementary relationships in nuclear families, and it's tearing us apart.
My own views are a little different. My wife has earned more than I have for most of the 18 years we’ve been married. And I have to tell you—it’s pretty awesome. At various points in our lives, her job has been our source of health benefits, childcare, and even football tickets. Not everybody feels the same way about such arrangements, I realize. But, as Pamela Smock, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, pointed out via e-mail, the Pew data (which included public opinion) suggests more and more people seem to think like I do—and less like Erickson does. “Younger adults are more gender egalitarian than older adults,” Smock, who is also director of the university’s Population Studies Center, said. “The report provides important and compelling evidence of a continuing shift in this direction. I expect this trend towards gender egalitarian views to continue.”
Still, the rise in women as the primary breadwinner isn’t simply a product of women establishing careers and, finally, getting paid well for them. Of the families in which women were the primary source of income, two-thirds are families in which women are also the only source of income—frequently because they are raising kids on their own.1 There’s a sharp, discernable class divide here: Lower income mothers are more likely to be single mothers than their better educated, better paid counterparts.
You don’t have to demonize these women or sit in judgment over their decisions to see that, in the aggregate, this is not a positive development. A large body of research shows that, all else equal, children from single parents are more likely than children from two-parent families to grow up in poverty, without the supports that more affluent kids get. As a result, those kids are also more likely to end up in poverty—and to experience all of the problems that go along with it. The boys, in particular, will grow up to be men that don’t earn much money and aren’t good marriage prospects, creating a cycle that feeds itself. In this sense, Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan points out, “the change in the gender earnings ratio is not a story of women doing better in an absolute sense but rather a story about men doing worse.”2
That brings me back to that Fox News panel, and why it’s indicative of a broader problem with the way we discuss these issues. The other panelists, to their credit, talked about the rise of single parents as a crisis—and bemoaned the lack of attention it was getting in Washington. I couldn’t agree more. But whose fault is that? President Obama has a detailed, smartly constructed agenda designed precisely to deal with these problems—starting with the pre-kindergarten program that would equip low-income kids with the skills many don’t get at home, so that they can break out of poverty for good. The proposal is based, in part, on successful state-based programs that Republicans have supported in Georgia and Oklahoma. But Republicans in Washington can’t even bother to react to it. And while they might have honest, legitimate objections to the actual policy—or even some sensible ideas of their own—it’s not like they’re investing the time to develop counter-proposals that would, by any realistic assessment, markedly improve the economic prospects for low-income workers.
Truth is, neither the Republicans nor their intellectual allies have much to say about challenges affecting lower-income Americans, female or male, except when it’s to bash the ideas Democrats are proposing. Amid that silence, retrograde rants by the likes of Erick Erickson leave a lasting impression.
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at the New Republic. Follow him on twitter @CitizenCohn
Smock points out that many of these unmarried parents are cohabitating and should really be a third category, distinct from married parents and truly single parents.
For a more thorough and provocative treatment of these complex issues, you might want to try Hanna Rosin's book, The End of Men.