The Share of Female Breadwinners Is Falling Back to Its 21-Year Average

Not a whole lot has changed

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Photographer: Daniel Acker

For all the talk of shifting gender dynamics within the American nuclear family, surprisingly little has changed when it comes to who brings home the bacon. 

For one: The share of married heterosexual couples with children under 18 in which the mother is the sole breadwinner declined in 2014 for a fourth year to 5.6 percent, almost completely erasing the jump made in the recession, according to a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report. It marked the steepest decline in data going back to 1994. The rate is now only 0.3 percentage point away from its two-decade average, represented by the horizontal line in the chart below. 

In the meantime, the share of dual-earning couples is actually lower than it was in 1994. The measure inched up last year to 60.2 percent, recovering some ground since stumbling to its 2010 low. Still, it's more than a percentage point below the 21-year average. 

And the portion of families in which only the father is employed barely declined after reaching a near-record in 2013. That rate last year was 30.8 percent, also above the long-term average. That means married-couple, child-rearing families with male sole-breadwinners are five times more prevalent in the U.S. right now than those with female sole-breadwinners. 

The labor-force participation rate for women rose significantly during the 1970s and 1980s, thereby increasing the share of dual-earner families, but it started to plateau in the mid-1990s, according to Cornell University economist Francine D. Blau, co-author of a 2013 study that compared female labor-participation rates in OECD countries. "The United States used to be one of the leaders in female labor-force participation," she said. "But we have fallen considerably relative to other developed nations, and a key factor has been their more generous work-family policies."

Separate data from the U.S. Census offer some evidence as to what's driving the disparate rates for mothers and fathers. Looking at labor-force participation for married parents of children under 15, 32 percent of mothers were not in the labor force last year, meaning they neither maintained nor sought employment. That compared to just 5.8 percent of fathers.

Why the decision to stay out of the workforce? For 86 percent of those mothers, it was to care for family. That was the motivation cited by only 24 percent of fathers. The remaining 76 percent cited other unspecified reasons.

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