It’s hard to have missed the hoopla about the recent Pew Research Center survey that reported that 4 out of 10 families with children under 18 now depend on the income of women who are the sole or main breadwinners.
The survey prompted lamentations by male commentators on Fox about what this trend portends for society. After RedState.com editor Erick Erickson said in a broadcast “that more women being the primary or sole breadwinners in families is harmful to raising children,” as he later put it in his blog, Fox host Megyn Kelly took him to task, pointing to a battery of research showing that the children of working mothers are doing just as well as children of at-home moms. If you’ve gotten tired of hearing complaints about working moms, take a moment to watch the video. It’ll give you a second wind.
What really surprises me is that women’s working is still such a loaded issue. In couples where women work, it’s usually because the family needs their income. According to a 2010 study by the Center for American Progress, in families with the highest income levels, only 33.5% had a wife where the wife earned as much or more than her husband. But that percentage rises in middle-income and lower-income families. In 43.5% of middle income families, there’s a wife who earns as much as or more than her husband. For those at the lowest income levels, the percentage is 69.7%.
The research found that only about one in three families now includes a full-time parent who does not have paid employment. In short, it’s a luxury that few can afford.
Given that this is the case, why are are wasting time debating whether or not it’s good for society if women with kids are breadwinners. The fact is that many are–and they’re doing it for a very good reason: To feed and house their families.
The real debate should be about how we, as a society, can rethink the workplace to reflect this trend. Women’s lives are different from men’s. Even if they are breadwinners, they typically tackle more housework, as Elizabeth pointed out. The lower-income and middle-income women who are most likely to be breadwinners often can’t afford the support systems that parents in the executive suite depend on, like reliable, in-home childcare professionals and house cleaning services.
Big employers don’t seem to want to pay attention to this. Perhaps that’s because it’s more profitable for them to try to get their workers to do the jobs of 1.5 to 2 people for the salary of one person–regardless of the personal price that workers with families pay when they are expected to work this way.
Freelancing can be a good alternative to this situation for some women, but if you’re the main breadwinner, it does require a cash cushion of about six months of savings to ramp up, given that clients don’t always pay on schedule. For those who don’t earn a high salary, it can be hard to save this much ahead of time.
Hopefully we’ll see the evolution of some new freelance marketplaces that offer workers the chance to earn quick, relatively steady payments without the strict schedule of a job. Freelancing would be a more realistic option for some if they knew they could get steady work every week–on their own schedule–and could expect their paycheck next Friday. I wrote about one company, Rev, that offers this model for translators and transcriptionists. Are there more out there? If you know of any others, please let us know by posting a comment.