Public Comment

When Women Are The Main Breadwinners

Harry Brill
Saturday August 25, 2018 - 12:22:00 PM

Despite the gain in earnings that many women have made, obtaining equality is a long way off. The current wage gap of 80.5 percent of male earnings is still substantial. As a result, women who work full time year-round are losing on the average over $10,000 a year. Moreover, If working women were receiving equal pay with men, their poverty rate would be cut in half.

Yet as revealing as this summary statistic is, it also conceals very important, contrary data. In over a third of all husband and wife families the woman is the main and in many instances the sole breadwinner. The changes in family work patterns have been considerable since 1970, when in almost half of all families only the father was employed. Now. the male as the sole family provider is in the minority.

In the last few decades, an increasing number of women have been entering the labor market. Women, who comprised fewer than thirty percent of the workforce in 1950 ,now make up 47 percent. In fact, the Department of Labor predicts that women for the first time in history will soon constitute a majority of working people.

Many women have been successfully competing for jobs that were once held only by men. Women have been able to do so in part because an increasing number have been going to college. In fact, they have been exceeding the number of males who receive higher education degrees. 

Women currently earn about 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees, 60 percent of all masters, and 51 percent of all doctorates. Although these achievements have not been enough to close the gender wage gap, it explains why many women have increased their income and have also become major breadwinners. Women in the last four decades have averaged a wage increase of 30 percent. Also, the gender wage gap for full time women workers has narrowed in the last four decades from 60 to 80.5 percent. 

Unfortunately, another very important reason women seem to be catching up is that men are losing ground. Their real wages have for a long while been stagnant. After taking account of inflation the purchasing power of men in the last forty years remains not only unchanged. For some it has even declined. 

Among the problems is that too many jobs are being exported. Over 14 million jobs, including 5 million manufacturing jobs, many which were well paying, have been outsourced to low wage foreign countries. Since 2001 well over 3 million jobs have been shipped to China. In addition, millions of additional jobs have vanished due to the immense loss in purchasing power that the domestic layoffs precipitated. Under the current Trump administration, despite the President's rhetoric, the exodus of jobs is continuing unabated. 

Also, as a result of the very successful legal and political 

assault against unions by business interests, the unions have been devastated. Union membership has decline from around a third of the workforce in the 1950s to currently just under 11 percent and only 6.5 percent in the private sector. Men particularly have been victimized. In 1979, when union membership peaked, almost 70 percent were male. Before the unions were busted, their earnings were up to 30 percent more than non-unionized workers. Now, according to the Brooking Institution, after taking account of inflation, men have not gotten a collective raise since 1973.  

Due to the beating many men have been taking, women have been replacing men as the main family provider. According to the US Department of Labor, in families where both spouses are working, the wives in 29 percent of these families earns more than their spouses. When the Department of labor also includes unemployed spouses, who made no financial contribution to their families, women are the primary breadwinners in 38 percent of these households. 

In a household where the woman is the primary bread winner, this arrangement can generate considerable marital tension and can even result in divorce. The patriarchal role that men have been playing, which has been rooted in their being the main breadwinner, has certainly been very problematic. As more women are becoming the main breadwinner, the risk is that some will be tempted to play a similar role. The version of feminism that favors the dominance of women could be reinforced in families where women are the main providers.  

The best route by far for a successful marriage is an egalitarian relationship in which both spouses see themselves as equal partners regardless of the different family roles they play. According to the research of John Gottman, who has interviewed thousands of married couples, spouses who treat each other as equal partners are much less likely to divorce and are more likely to have a happy marriage. Those who make the effort to build an egalitarian marriage will eventually see, according to an old metaphorical expression, the light at the end of the tunnel.