The Future Of The Family In An Age Of Female Breadwinners

A new Pew report on “Breadwinner Moms” notes that 40 percent of families with children under 18 now have the mother as the primary or sole breadwinner in the family. While this rapid transformation — that figure was 11 percent in 1960 — is scaring some backward commentators, there are real problems created by the major demographic trend underyling the transition. These are problems that smarter, more progressive public policy can solve.

The higher number of female-funded families is split roughly 60–40 between an increase in single moms (now up to 25 percent of families with children) and an increase in families where the mother earns more than the father (now 15 percent of families with children). The latter families tend to be affluent and college-educated while the former families tend to be poor and non-college-educated:

The report also notes that the proportion of married couples with children where the father is the sole breadwinner has declined sharply from 70 percent in 1960 to 31 percent today, while dual income families where both the mother and father work has become the norm (up from 25 to 59 percent). There has also been an increase from 2 to 7 percent in married couples with children where only the mother works:

The public has mixed feelings about these changes. While 64 percent see the rise of unmarried mothers as a big problem, 63 percent disagree that a marriage is better if the husband earns more than his wife. Similarly, two-thirds think more women working outside the home has made it easier to live comfortably, while three quarters say this change has made it harder to raise children.


Given these ambivalent feelings, it is perhaps no surprise that these changes and whether/how we should respond to these changes have become controversial political issues. But these feelings are really only the tip of the iceberg. If we want to understand why these issues have become not just controversial but extremely contentious, we have to dig a little deeper. That starts with understanding a very important phenomenon called “the second demographic transition.”

The first demographic transition accompanied the rise and consolidation of the industrial economy. As living standards rose, public health improved and urbanization proceeded, mortality and fertility declined, marriage became both more common and earlier in the life-cycle and family life was dominated by a single family model (the “nuclear family”) encouraged by state and religious authorities. In the United States, the culmination of this transition was the society of the 1950’s, centered heavily around an idealized nuclear family, with high marriage rates, low divorce rates and a median age at first marriage of around 20 for women and 23 for men.

The second demographic transition has unfolded with the rise of the information economy and postindustrial society. Increasing affluence and education levels, shifting occupational structures, changing values, especially on the importance of self-expression, tolerance and equality, and the widespread availability of reliable contraception have broken down the norms underlying the ordered life course of the 1950’s. Fertility has further declined, marriage rates have decreased, divorce rates have increased and the median age at first marriage has shot up to 26 for women and 28 for men. The hold of traditional religion has been loosened and laws reflecting religious priorities have been eliminated or weakened.

Naomi Cahn and June Carbone show in their excellent book, Red Families v. Blue Families, show that this transition has not been neutral across society but rather has winners and losers — a class divide, if you will.

The winners, broadly speaking, are the college-educated who postpone marriage to pursue higher education and job mobility. They establish families when they have a secure basis for doing so and now are less likely to divorce than the non-college-educated. This confers multiple advantages on their offspring: material comfort, stable family life and parents well-able to provide help and guidance for their children. So their children too tend to be successful and replicate their parents’ approach to human capital acquisition and delayed family formation.


The non-college-educated are adapting less successfully to the second demographic transition. They have more difficulty separating sex from marriage and sex from procreation, seeking in a sense to replicate the ordered life course of the 1950’s in a postindustrial society that has rendered such an approach obsolete. They marry earlier, have children earlier, including during their teen years, and are more likely to have children outside of marriage. These responsibilities interfere with their ability to pursue education and career goals, leaving them in an economic cul-de-sac which stresses their marriages, leading to high divorce rates. Children as a result suffer from deficits of parental investment and family stability leading them, in all likelihood, to repeat the cycle.

Cahn and Carbone connect these different approaches to the political geography of the country. In blue states and urban areas, the former approach predominates, which they label the “blue family” model. In red states and rural areas, the latter approach is more common, which they label the “red family” model. They argue that the conflict between these two models is the real driver behind the cultural polarization (conflicts around sex education, abstinence, abortion, parental notification, gay marriage, custody rights, child care etc) that has marked politics in the last thirty years. They further argue that this polarization masks the most pernicious effects of the differing family models: that they produce and accentuate economic inequality. How are the non-college-educated to get out of their economic cul-de-sac with these seemingly intractable conflicts around moral issues?

Cahn and Carbone believe there is a way to resolve this quandary. First, they say, change the subject of family values promotion from sex and sex education to commitment and marriage education. The biggest threat to the red family world is declining marriage and high divorce rates among the non-college-educated; contentious programs like abstinence education have proven ineffective in addressing this problem. But efforts to promote stable marriages through communication, commitment, financial planning and delay until couples have a secure basis for household formation have shown promise and should be acceptable across both red and blue families.

Second, they argue for shifting the focus from abortion to contraception. Abortion is intrinsically divisive while contraception is not; almost all adult women use it at one time or another. And easy access to, and consistent use of, contraception is the best solution to unwanted pregnancies particularly for teenage mothers. The authors believe that a true middle ground in the culture wars is moving family formation out of the teenage years.

Finally, they advocate changing the subject from family to work. In their view, the most serious obstacles to both blue and red families lie in the American workplace. On the one hand, American workplaces are notoriously family-unfriendly and public supports for families are stingy, which promotes low fertility, especially a problem for blue families, and places heavy stress among families across the board. On the other, it is a huge problem, particularly for red families, to acquire and improve their human capital so they don’t get stuck in dead-end, low wage workplaces. Cahn and Carbone argue that discussion and action in this area, from workplace flexibility to public provision of preschool and afterschool, will be far more fruitful than disputes about what is and is not a proper family.

This all seems eminently sensible and will certainly be more beneficial to struggling families than trying to reverse the second demographic transition, as seems to the default position of conservatives these days. Adaptation, not intransigent opposition, to changes like the rise of breadwinner moms should be the order of the day.


Thoughtful conservatives like Reihan Salam, who writes The Agenda blog for National Review, realize the truth of this, even as they worry that their party just doesn’t seem to get it. In a piece on the Pew report, he remarks:

The landscape described by Pew is of central importance to America’s economic and political future. The major party coalition that speaks most compellingly to the need to combine market and household production, to the challenges of the “sandwich generation,” and to economic aspiration more broadly will tend to have an advantage over the other. Republicans are at a disadvantage because disrupted families are underrepresented in the GOP coalition, which tends to be older and whiter than the Democratic coalition, and so these developments have in a sense snuck up on elected conservatives. Family life has changed so quickly that the generation gap is more like a generation chasm. Eventually Republicans are going to have to talk about and think about the interaction between changing family structure and a changing economy more rigorously, and when they do they won’t be weighed down by certain convictions that constrain their Democratic rivals (e.g., the widespread belief among Democratic voters that the growing number of children raised outside of marriage isn’t a big problem). At the same time, they’re going to have to deal with the fact that civil society organizations and families won’t be able to drive positive change entirely on their own.

Well, good luck with that, Reihan. But I’m not holding my breath.