Breadwinning Mothers Are Critical to Families’ Economic Security

A woman works at a computer behind the desk, July 2020.

This column is an updated analysis from “Breadwinning Mothers Continue To Be the U.S. Norm” by Sarah Jane Glynn, published on May 10, 2019.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout has dramatically affected the economic security and well-being of families in the United States. While the full impact and potential long-term implications are still unfolding, it is important to remember that, even before the economic and social upheavals of 2020, many families were barely treading water. Wages have not kept pace with productivity growth for decades, and women’s labor force participation and earnings were a significant factor in helping to keep families afloat. Yet, to date, 2.3 million women have left the labor force. And, in January, 1.4 million fewer mothers of school-aged children were working for pay than had been in the previous year. In February 2021, women’s labor force participation had dipped to the lowest level since 1988.

The Center for American Progress has written extensively on the impact of the pandemic on the employment and labor force participation of women and mothers, but it is also important to look back and note where working families were in the years before COVID-19 upended people’s lives. Building upon the groundbreaking research on breadwinning mothers first authored by former CAP Senior Economist Heather Boushey, this update explores the important economic role working mothers played in supporting their families in the five years leading up to 2020 and offers a glimpse at what is at stake if conditions do not improve—and quickly—for families during the ongoing economic recovery.

Two-thirds of working mothers were breadwinners before the pandemic

In 2019—the last year before the pandemic and the last year with available data—two-thirds of mothers were either breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families. More than 4 in 10 (41.2 percent) were sole or primary breadwinners—either single working mothers or married mothers bringing in at least half of their families’ earnings. Another one-quarter (24.8 percent) were co-breadwinners earning at least 25 percent of their families’ wages. (see Figure 1) While not representing a significant increase from the most recent updates using 2018 data, over time, there has been a significant upward trajectory of mothers’ breadwinning and co-breadwinning status.

Figure 1

Women of color most likely to be breadwinners

However, the overall numbers mask significant variation among different groups of mothers. Notably, most women of color are significantly more likely than white women to be breadwinners for their families, although they may be less likely to be co-breadwinners. For example, pooling five years of data from 2015 to 2019, more than two-thirds of black mothers were sole or primary breadwinners (68.1 percent) compared to just more than one-third (37.2 percent) of non-Hispanic white mothers. (see Figure 2)

Figure 2

More than half of Native American mothers (54.6 percent) and multiracial mothers (52.7 percent) were sole or primary breadwinners, as were 4 in 10 (40.6 percent) of Hispanic mothers of any race. Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) mothers were the least likely to be sole or primary breadwinners (29.8 percent) although they were as likely as white mothers to be co-breadwinners (26.2 percent). Much of this is due to differences in marital status, as white and AAPI mothers are more likely to be married than Native American mothers and other mothers of color.

Low-income families more likely to have breadwinning mothers

There are also significant variations based on income quintile. Looking over the same five-year period, mothers in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution were more than three times as likely to be sole or primary breadwinners for their families as those in the top 20 percent (69.1 percent compared to 29.4 percent). (see Figure 3)

Figure 3

These differences are due to several overlapping factors. Unmarried parents are more likely to be in lower income brackets for a variety of reasons, as low earners are less likely to be married and because having only one earner makes being in a lower income quartile more likely. Married couples are more likely to be in higher earnings brackets because they are more likely to be dual earners, and high-earning women are more likely to be married to high-earning men. These factors are reflected in the fact that the lowest quintile has, by far, the smallest share of co-breadwinning mothers at only 3.1 percent while the top two income brackets have the highest rates of co-breadwinners. However, this does not mean that high income families do not depend on women’s earnings. Even among families in the highest quintile, 3 in 10 mothers were breadwinners (29.4 percent) and more than one-third were co-breadwinners (34.2 percent). This means that even among the highest earning families with children, only about one-third have a male primary breadwinner bringing home the vast majority of family income.

Mothers of school age children more likely to be breadwinners

Breadwinning mothers were also more likely in families where the youngest child is of school age. Among families with the youngest child being age 6 to 17, more than 4 in 10 (44.4 percent) were sole or primary breadwinners while another one-quarter (24.0 percent) were co-breadwinners. In families with a child under age 6, more than one-third (37.4 percent) were sole or primary breadwinners and one-quarter (23.0 percent) were co-breadwinners. This is likely due to mothers’ decreased levels of labor force participation when children are younger. In 2019, two-thirds of mothers with a child under age 6 (66.4 percent) were in the labor force compared to three-quarters of mothers whose youngest child was age 6 to 17 (76.8 percent).

Figure 4

In some instances, this discrepancy is due to personal choices, but is often influenced by the lack of paid parental leave in the United States coupled with the high cost of child care.

Significant variations in mothers’ breadwinning across states

Finally, there is considerable variation state by state. In all but one state (Utah), more than half of mothers are breadwinners for their families. (see Table 1) Utah has the lowest rate of sole or primary breadwinning mothers at 1 in 4 (24.9 percent), while the District of Columbia has the highest at more than half (54.7 percent).

Table 1


New data on families’ earnings during the pandemic continues to be collected and released, and it is likely that once the numbers are in for 2020, the rates of breadwinning mothers will shift. In the meantime, the high rates of breadwinning among mothers from 2015 through 2019 shows that families depend on women’s earnings to survive and helps to demonstrate how much the economy stands to lose if women’s employment and labor force participation does not significantly rebound soon. Losing the last generation of women’s progress will harm families and significantly hamper the potential for economic growth—begetting disastrous consequences. Significant action—such as the creation of permanent paid family and medical leave; paid sick days; and expanded access to affordable, high-quality child care—must be taken to support women and mothers’ employment and labor force participation lest we all pay the price.

Sarah Jane Glynn is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.