Number Of Women As Top Household Earners Growing, Birth Rates Falling


According to a Pew study, women are becoming the top income earners in an increasing number of households. Part of that increase is due to an increase in single mother households – not a positive for our society – but what’s interesting is that the number of married women who are the top income earners is growing too:

WASHINGTON – A record number of American women are now the sole or primary breadwinners in their families, a sign of the rising influence of working mothers, a new study finds. Mothers now keep finances afloat in 40 percent of households with children, up from just 11 percent in 1960.

While most of these families are headed by single mothers, a growing number are married mothers who bring in more income than their husbands, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.

As the numbers have shifted, however, public attitudes have remained mixed regarding the impact of working mothers on families. People are not at all sure that it’s a good thing.

Demographers say the change is all but irreversible and is likely to bring added attention to child-care policies as well as government safety nets for vulnerable families.

“This change is just another milestone in the dramatic transformation we have seen in family structure and family dynamics over the past 50 years or so,” said Kim Parker, associate director with the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project. “Women’s roles have changed, marriage rates have declined – the family looks a lot different than it used to. The rise of breadwinner moms highlights the fact that not only are more mothers balancing work and family these days, but the economic contributions mothers are making to their households have grown immensely.”

There are no easy explanations for this. Women have been outpacing men in college admissions and graduation rates for some time, though that’s tempered by the fact that women are choosing areas of study that historically produce lower pay than the areas of study men choose.

There’s also the fact that the economic recession has hit men a lot harder than women. “Male and female unemployment rates were around the same levels in December 2007, 5.0% and 4.8% respectively,” reported the New York Fed. “In August 2009, the male unemployment rate stood at 10.9% while that of females was 8.2%. This 2.7 percentage point difference is the largest unemployment gender gap in the postwar era.”

That, no doubt, is another explanation for the growing number of women acting as the primary breadwinners in their households.

But there’s little doubt that, long-term, women are simply earning more. The lines between traditional gender roles are blurring. I leave it to others to discuss whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but one impact it’s having is on birth rates.

There is a correlation between economic liberty and birth rates. Essentially, countries with greater amounts of economic liberty have lower birth rates. In 2009, Reason’s Ronald Bailey wrote about it in a piece called “The Invisible Hand Of Population Control.”

In 2002, Seth Norton, a business economics professor at Wheaton College in Illinois, published a remarkably interesting study on the inverse relationship between prosperity and fertility. Norton compared fertility rates of over 100 countries with their index rankings for economic freedom and another index for the rule of law. “Fertility rate is highest for those countries that have little economic freedom and little respect for the rule of law,” wrote Norton. “The relationship is a powerful one. Fertility rates are more than twice as high in countries with low levels of economic freedom and the rule of law compared to countries with high levels of those measures.”

Norton found that the fertility rate in countries that ranked low on economic freedom averaged 4.27 children per woman while countries with high economic freedom rankings had an average fertility rate of 1.82 children per woman. His results for the rule of law were similar; fertility rates in countries with low respect for the rule of law averaged 4.16 whereas countries with high respect for the rule of law had fertility rates averaging 1.55.

Economic freedom and the rule of law produce prosperity which dramatically lowers child mortality which, in turn, reduces the incentive to bear more children. In addition, along with increased prosperity comes more education for women, opening up more productive opportunities for them in the cash economy. This increases the opportunity costs for staying at home to rear children. Educating children to meet the productive challenges of growing economies also becomes more expensive and time consuming.

Put simply, as women rise to greater levels of economic importance in their households, the cost of bearing children in terms of lost economic opportunity and income also rises due to the biological reality that women have the babies.

Globally, birth rates are down and population is growing. So much so that some are projecting negative growth in the future.

Again, I’ll leave it to others to decide whether these trends are positive or negative, but it does illustrate how government policy intended to promote certain economic outcomes can have broad and totally unexpected outcomes.