07/15/2013 12:07 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

A False Dawn for Mother Breadwinners

The Pew Research Center recently announced that mothers are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households. Forty percent, in many minds, invokes the image of an almost equal participation of moms and dads in the workforce and at home. Commentators and media outlets have seized the opportunity to discuss the father's domestic role and the disproportionate impact of the recession on men. Many have viewed this as the advancement of women in the workforce.

However, a closer look at the numbers, in conjunction with birth data, suggests otherwise. Notably, while mothers are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of households, the same percentage of births are to unmarried mothers. Although the two populations do not perfectly overlap -- not every female breadwinner is a single mother -- they do to a surprisingly significant extent. Specifically, 8.6 million (63 percent) of women breadwinners in the United States are single mothers. A further analysis of the numbers reveals the startling fact that 25 percent of all breadwinners in the United States are single mothers earning a median income of $23,000 per year.

From this perspective on the data, the policy implications are significant. The most noteworthy is the increased need for quality childcare. If women are both sole income earners and the sole parent, they need affordable and high quality childcare, a challenge on a low income.

However, the demographic changes underlying the numbers are troublesome in light of numerous studies showing that two-parent households are better for children than one-parent households. Reasons for this include more resources in terms of both money and parenting time.

The child support system is intended to bridge this financial gap between single moms and married moms, but it is ineffective for many. The U.S. Census Bureau showed that of the $35.1 billion in child support due in 2009, only 61 percent was received, averaging $3,630 per parent. Child support collection becomes even more challenging, if not impossible, when the noncustodial parent simply does not have the ability to pay the child support obligation.

Meanwhile, the visitation system that intends to maintain ties between the noncustodial parent and the child is also flawed. While the entire visitation framework aims to protect the child's best interests, both parents must be willing to facilitate visits because it is difficult and expensive to enforce a court order.

These various defects plaguing the child support and visitation systems are even more problematic given the number of divorces -- which currently stands at almost 50 percent of marriages -- and the additional number of children relying on these systems as a result. A significant majority of children in the youngest generations will see their parents living in different households.

Ultimately, society is left with a dramatically increasing number of women who are both the single parent and the primary breadwinner with relatively low wages. This would be a different story if the numbers showed that 40 percent of married households had a female breadwinner. But in married households with children today, only 15 percent have women primary earners. This is only a slight increase from the year 1960, when 11 percent of households had breadwinner moms and the rate of births to unmarried women stood only at 5.3 percent.