The Houston Chronicle's headline for a discussion of a new Pew survey about mothers and paid work:
Mothers now top earners in 4 in 10 US households
Perhaps they are not to be blamed as Pew itself uses a similar headline. But if you read through the Pew report about this survey (using mostly 2011 data), you find that it matters greatly what we mean by a household, and you also find that the story could have been given a very different headline.
About the latter, just read this actual quote from the Pew survey summary:
Despite the fact that mothers are generally more educated* than their husbands** today, a majority of fathers still earn more than their wives. The share of couples in which the husband’s income exceeds the wife’s was about 75% in 2011. This in part reflects different employment rates between married parents: about 65% of married mothers were employed in 2011, compared with about 90% of fathers. But it also reflects different earning patterns among men and women. Even in dual income families in which both fathers and mothers are working, 70% of these families consist of fathers who earn more than mothers.
Bolds are mine.
The actual percentage of married couple families where the wife is either the sole or the major breadwinner was 24% in 2011, not 40%.
Can you spot the problem in the initial analysis of that four in ten households figure? It mixes together single-parent families with married families. If a family has a single female earner, that female earner obviously is the top earner of the family.
This Pew Survey also asks for opinions about the desirability of more mothers working for money and about families led by a single mother***, and notes that those show the public conflicted. Thus, while the vast majority (78%) of respondents in a 2012 survey disagreed with the assertion that "women should return to their traditional roles," the opinions were different when the questions were about mothers of young children:
In 2012, roughly two-thirds (65%) of women with children younger than age 6 were either employed or looking for work. This share is up dramatically from 39% in 1975. While working outside the home is now more the norm than the exception for mothers of young children, the public remains conflicted about this trend. In the new Pew Research poll, 51% of the adults surveyed said children are better off if their mother is home and doesn’t hold a job, while only 34% said children are just as well off if their mother works. An additional 13% of respondents volunteered that it “depends” on the circumstances.12
A decade ago, the public felt even more strongly that the best thing for children was to have a mother who stayed home. In a 2003 CBS News/New York Times survey, 61% said children are better off if their mother doesn’t hold a job, while 29% said children were just as well off if their mother worked.
There is a gender gap on this question: 45% of women say children are better off if their mother is at home, and 38% say children are just as well off if their mother works. Among men, 57% say children are better off if their mother is at home, while 29% say they are just as well off if their mother works.
There is an age gap on this question as well. Again, young adults express a different set of views than their older counterparts. Nearly half (46%) of those under age 30 say children are just as well off if their mother works, while 37% say they are better off with a mother who stays home. Among those ages 30 and older, the balance of opinion is just the opposite: 55% say children are better off if their mother is home, and 31% say they are just as well off with a working mother.
Two important points about that long quote: First, the opinions on this (as in other questions discussed in the Pew summary) have become less conservative over time. Second, men are somewhat more conservative than women and older people are more conservative than younger people.
The same question was asked about the role of fathers. That's nice to see. However, fathers are not viewed as acceptable substitutes for mothers by most of the respondents:
The public is not conflicted at all about whether fathers should work or stay home with their children. Fully 76% say children are just as well off if their father works, while only 8% say children are better off if their father is home and doesn’t hold a job. An additional 11% say it depends on the situation.Bolds are mine. I was unable to find an earlier survey on that same topic, for the purpose of comparing responses over time.
Views on whether fathers should work or stay at home do not differ by gender or age. Equal shares of men and women (76%) say children are just as well off if their father works. Similarly, 74% of young adults and 77% of those ages 30 and older agree that having a father who works outside the home is not harmful to children.13
But in general the results are not unexpected, because the public debate about parenting has always been about mothering and the usual choices offered are for the mother to do it all at home or for the family to use caregivers for part of the time, and in neither case is the society expected to support those choices.
Neither is it surprising that most people don't think young children suffer from a father who works outside the home. After all, that IS the traditional template, and the only way we could judge if it has been less than optimal for children would be by trying other arrangements in large enough numbers. In short, the father-as-the-breadwinner is the basic template for all comparisons.
The objective of this post is to highlight the way surveys such as this one are sold. For sold they are. The more attention the survey gets, the more good things happen to its authors and the Pew Institute itself, and results advertised as controversial are more likely to sell than results which seem to show a fairly slow but regular trend towards the values beginning to match facts better. But that, too, is a possible reading of the results.
*One needs to be careful about that statement, because most wives and husbands have the same education levels:
Rising education levels among women can also contribute to the increased share of married mothers who out-earn their husbands. Even though most people are married to someone with a similar educational background, the number of couples in which the wife is better educated than her husband has increased. Among all married couples with children in 1960, about 16% had a husband who was better educated than his wife and the opposite was true for 7% of couples. About five decades later, the pattern has flipped: In about 23% of couples, it is the wife who has attained a higher education level than her husband, and among 17% of families the husband is better educated than the wife.19
**As far as I can tell, the survey doesn't include same-sex couples.
***The views on single mothers are fairly negative. Still, as the survey puts it, those views have softened over time and vary by age group in the current survey:
When it comes to the rising share of single mothers, the public takes a mostly negative view. About six-in-ten adults (64%) say the growing number of children born to unmarried mothers is a big problem. An additional 19% say this is a small problem, and 13% say this is not a problem at all.
Opinions on this issue have softened somewhat in recent years. In a 2007 Pew Research survey, 71% of adults said the rising share of single mothers was a big problem, and only 8% said it wasn’t a problem at all.10
In the current survey, whites are more likely than non-whites to see this trend as a problem. Some 67% of whites compared with 56% of non-whites say the growing number of children born to unmarried mothers is a big problem.11
Young adults have much different views on this issue than do middle-aged and older adults. Only 42% of those ages 18-29 view the rising share of unmarried mothers as a big problem. By contrast, 65% of those ages 30-49 say this is a big problem, as do 74% of those ages 50 and older. Among young adults, most say this trend is either a small problem (35%) or not a problem at all (19%).