Natural history of the present

US conservatives surprised that the number of ‘Breadwinner Moms’ has risen since 1960

If you spend any time, as I do, in that strange and confusing place we call “The Internet” or that only marginally less strange and confusing place called the USA, you might have noticed an unholy row last week about “Breadwinner Moms”. The catalyst was a Pew Research Center report showing that mothers now act as the sole or primary provider in 40% of American households with children. This constitutes a dramatic rise since 1960 when less than 11% of families had female breadwinners.

The rise in single mothers and married mothers who are the primary provider since 1960 in the USA. Pew Research Center


Its not as though anything else has happened in the last 53 years. Like widespread adoption of the contraceptive pill. Or quantum improvements in other contraceptive methods and reproductive health. Or feminism’s second and subsequent waves.

The Pew Center report actually makes a very interesting read. Two distinct categories of “breadwinner moms” have grown: single mothers who are mostly poor (median household income of US$23,000 a year), and married mothers who earn more than their husbands (together bringing in a median of US$80,000).

Predictably, the report has been interpreted along such different lines that one could be forgiven for believing progressives and conservatives were reading quite different documents.

Over at This View of Life, my colleague Jason Collins (author of the wonderful Evolving Economics blog) and I just published an analysis of the conservative reaction, typified by this clip from Lou Dobbs Tonight on Fox Business:

All-male panel on Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs Tonight discusses “nothing less than the demise of The American Family”.

As Jason put it, this clip confirms that political satire is obsolete.

As does this grilling that Dobbs and one of his guests, Erick Erickson, received from Dobbs’ Fox Business colleague Megyn Kelly on America Live:

Megyn Kelly takes Lou Dobbs and Erick Erickson to takes about their earlier comments.

The zeal with which conservatives - normally so willing to pooh-pooh science - attached themselves to this report illustrates the deep ideological divisions that emerge out of our preconceived views of family life. Jason and I are in the throes of organising the Cooperation and Conflict in the Family Conference which will bring leading economists, evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and psychologists to Sydney next February to explore how evolution and economics can combine to help us better understand the difficult conflicts of interest that sit at the heart of family life.

As our article at This View of Life suggests, there is far more to this report and to the fascinating research emerging in this area than any partisan pseudodebate can convey. There is much to celebrate about the gains women have made in society and in workplaces since 1960.

And yet these gains don’t come without seismically remodelling sex, family life and societies. Mostly for the better, but not entirely without cost.

I’d welcome Comments or Tweets (@Brooks_Rob) about other areas of life that have - perhaps unexpectedly - been impacted by changes in contraception, reproductive control and the relative incomes earned by women and men.