The good news, trumpeted in Women’s Work, the latest report from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, is that dramatic increases in women’s labor-force participation have boosted the “financial security and mobility” of millions of families across America since 1970. The bad news is that growing economic opportunities for women have not translated into more family income for poor and working-class families at the lower end of the income ladder. That’s surprising, because up and down the income ladder, women have been bringing home more bacon since the 1970s, as the figure below illustrates.
What gives? What accounts for the paradox that women’s income is rising across the board yet family income is falling for the bottom 40 percent of families? Mainly, to paraphrase Hanna Rosin, the end of marriage and men in working-class and poor communities across the nation, coupled with the fact that maternal labor-force participation has plateaued since the 1990s. That is, a dramatic retreat from marriage, declines in men’s employment and income, and a leveling off of maternal labor-force participation have all combined to limit the income available to lower-income families, and to offset the increases in women’s income documented in this new report.
The economic bad news for lower-income families can be seen in the divergent fortunes of middle- and upper-class families versus working-class and poor families depicted above. Since 1970, family income has fallen for the lowest two quintiles, even as it has risen for the top three quintiles.
The End of Marriage—For the Poor
One reason that lower-income families are losing economic ground is that gains in women’s income have been offset by declines in marriage among the poor and working class. As the figure below indicates, more than half of these families are headed by just one parent—typically a single mother. Lacking the income of two parents, or the income of a father, these single-parent families are much less likely to reap the benefits of increases in income that have accrued to today’s working women. This is one reason why single-mother families are much more likely to be struggling to make ends meet. Indeed, one recent estimate found that the median income for married families in 2012 was about $81,000, compared to about $25,000 for single mothers.
By contrast, for families in the middle and upper classes, women’s work has generally translated into more family income because marriage is alive and well. The figure below shows that married, two-parent families remain much more common at the upper-end of the family income ladder in America. So, one reason that the rich are getting richer is that they are much more likely to get and stay married, and profit from the benefits of pooling the relatively high income of two parents, compared to families down the income ladder, often relying on the relatively low income of a single parent. In the words of Richard Reeves, policy director of Brookings’ Center on Children and Families, “Matrimony is flourishing among the rich but floundering among the poor, leading to a large, corresponding ‘marriage gap.’”