WASHINGTON – The number of working mothers who are the sole breadwinners in their families rose last year to an all-time high, and the number of stay-at-home dads edged higher, in a shift of traditional gender roles caused partly by massive job losses.
The number of mothers who were the only working spouse rose for the third straight year, according to Census Bureau figures released Friday. The number of dads who were the only working spouse dropped, and the number of stay-at-home dads ticked higher.
The figures are for married couples with kids under 18.
“Women are really stepping in and helping families stay afloat. The question is whether men are stepping up and picking up the slack around home,” said Kristin Smith, a family demographer at the University of New Hampshire.
By the numbers, about 4 percent or 963,000 mothers were the only parent in the labor force. The share of fathers as the sole worker was much bigger – 28.2 percent or 7.3 million – but still the lowest since 2001. The share of couples who both work stayed the same at 66 percent or 17 million.
There were 158,000 stay-at-home dads, up from 140,000 in 2008. Still, the number is less than 1 percent of married couples.
The recession’s toll has been harder on male-dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing. There are also longer-term cultural changes at work, too, as more women earn college degrees and the better job opportunities they bring.
“The economic crisis is heavily affecting families, and what the latest data show is that gender roles are flexible and are going in the direction of egalitarian roles,” said Pamela J. Smock, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan.
She said the shifts could have lasting effects after the economy rebounds, as people become more accustomed to the roles of breadwinner moms and stay-at-home dads.
Smith sees a continued reliance on wives as breadwinners, “particularly if we see a jobless economic recovery like we did after the 2001 recession.”
Her research on working mothers found that employed wives last year contributed to 45 percent of total family earnings. That was up from 44 percent in the previous year.
Women’s pay still lagged men’s, though the gap has slowly been narrowing. Women with full-time jobs earned salaries equal to 77.9 percent of what men earned, up from 77.5 percent in 2007 and about 64 percent in 2000.