What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About "Breadwinner Moms"
Women and work are making headlines again. This past week, the news channels have all been flooded with the latest research from the Pew Research Center—a non-partisan fact tank that releases surveys and research analysis on American issues, and a benchmark source for information on changes in our society. Their latest report, released yesterday, found that a full 40 percent of American women are the "breadwinners" in their households. The large and loud coverage of this fact is almost instantaneous: Change is afoot! And how do we feel about it? A quick review of about 20 articles responding to the statistics from major media outlets all contain the same phrase: "This is good news and bad news."
What the "bad news" is depends on a few—very predictable—things. Are you a conservative? Then women heading to work in such large numbers is creating an unsustainable burden on families and marriage. If you are an educated white female? It might be the outrage that as women have become an ever-larger part of the workforce, their salaries still lag behind men's. If you are a man of any particular stripe, you may subscribe to the notion that this is further proof of "the end of men," as women continue to post gains in education and earning power and industries in which they outnumber men—nursing and education—continue to expand.
All those points are defensible, but it's critical to note that those storylines relate to the minority (37 percent) of those women who make up the "breadwinner moms"—mothers who, by and large, tend to be white, college-educated and married. Let's call them the "Lean In" moms—the cohort of working mothers on whom the media spends most of its ink. Miles of ink. Pages and pages and magazine covers and talking heads on TV and and feminist calls-to-action and instant best-sellers supported by a cover on TIME magazine.
But actually, the real "bad news" in this story is the vast majority of "breadwinner moms" aren't really even making enough bread to support a family. By far the most common breadwinner mom is the single working mom. And the average annual salary for single working moms is $23,200.The average for the "working mom" we discuss, debate, pillory or glorify the most often? $80,000 a year, a hefty $23,000 larger than the median income ($57,100, via Pew/U.S. Census) for the average American family.
That's a pretty striking coincidence, don't you think? That the earnings bonus generated by the first group of women for their families (largely white, college-educated and married) equals the total income generated by the second group (largely non-white, not college-educated, and unmarried).
That's a breathtaking fact.
But actually, that's not what the Pew study cites as the "bad news." That's my opinion. But what the Pew study reveals is that a full 64 percent of the survey respondents say that this growing trend of unmarried mothers is a “big problem." And I don't think they mean that it's a problem for those women, though certainly you can imagine the challenge of raising a child in American on $23,300—especially in our family-unfriendly work world, in our country with the most unforgiving family policies, in an America where affordable child care is out of reach of many. I think they mean unmarried mothers are a problem for society, a problem for America.
What the Pew poll gently tiptoes away from, however, is the natural follow-up question: What kind of problem? An economic problem? A social problem? A progress problem?
We can't define or talk about or "solve"—or even debate—these problems. And we certainly can't turn them into a bout of privileged public hand-wringing, the usual response to any discussion about "work" and "moms." We can't because then we'd have to have incredibly complicated discussions about race and education and income and opportunity, conversations we have not at all been able to digest and have in the U.S., whether in the media or in our political campaigns—or even in our own communities. But the fact is, we have been hiding them behind the tired, constantly recycled questions of whether women—elite women, we must mean, because the average American woman doesn't have a choice—should be working.
Instead, of tackling tough topics and having hard conversations, we try to turn back time. Reach into the past to find the "better way" we should be living. Long for a moment in history that is gone—when the family unit was solid, predictable. Find a place to put the blame.
Unmarried women. Single moms. Raising children alone. Having children without marrying. This is the demographic trend that is "destroying America." These are the "breadwinner moms" we don't talk about.
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