Category Error – the problem with that “breadwinner mom” study

Tuesday I had never heard the term “breadwinner mom”, but by Wednesday afternoon everybody seemed to have an opinion about it — and a reaction to everybody else’s opinions. By Thursday, the reactions to the reactions were the story, and the conversation stopped having much to do with the underlying study.

And that’s too bad, because an important point needs to be made: breadwinner mom is an act of statistical malpractice. The term is badly defined and should never have been attached to a hard statistic like “40% of American homes with children under 18”.

The study that defined it generated so much bad discussion because it couldn’t possibly have generated good discussion; virtually none of the statements you might make about the entire 40% are both true and interesting. You can turn breadwinner mom into a stereotype or you can leave it alone, but you can’t talk about it intelligently.

To see why, let’s start at the beginning. Wednesday, Pew Research released a study. It begins with a statement that (as I’ll explain below) is not entirely true:

A record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.

A few paragraphs later we get the definition:

These “breadwinner moms” are made up of two very different groups: 5.1 million (37%) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.

You have to be careful when you create a category “made up of very different groups”. Because once you’ve done that, it’s easy to forget how diverse the category is and talk about it as if it were a unified phenomenon.

For example, we might define a category called “minorities” that combines blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, and homosexuals. That would get us a big number — probably almost as big as the 40% Pew claims for breadwinner moms — but at the cost of making the category too cumbersome to say much about. All “minorities” have some reason to feel out of the mainstream and can point to various kinds of discrimination, but it’s hard to find any single issue that cuts across the entire collection. If we started throwing the term around, probably the big number would stick in people’s heads, but the definition would get replaced by a stereotype — poor, dark-skinned people who live in urban ghettos — which would apply to many of the blacks and Hispanics, but would misrepresent most of the Asians, Jews, and homosexuals.

Now imagine being a professional-class suburban Jew who finds himself called to account for the problems “minorities” cause in the urban ghetto.

You might think two groups wouldn’t be hard to keep straight, but under examination, both “single mothers” and “married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands” dissolve into a variety of dissimilar groups.

In a footnote, Pew says:

Single mothers include mothers who are never married, divorced, widowed, separated, or married but the spouse is not in the household.

So some of our “single mothers” are married, and some are not breadwinners. Another footnote says that Pew won’t count single mothers who live with their parents, but think about the range of women still included:

  • A high-school dropout juggles a fast-food job and a baby, and gets food stamps and some money from her parents, but no help from the baby’s father.
  • A professional-class mother (whose youngest child is 17) recently divorced. She plans to restart her career soon, but for now lives on a combination of alimony, child support, and the cash settlement from the divorce.
  • A widow with children has a part-time job, but couldn’t get by without the pension and/or life insurance settlement from her deceased husband.
  • A Murphy Brown type gave up on finding Mr. Right, but has enough money and enough support from friends and family to raise her child well.
  • A lesbian can’t marry in her state, but shares child-raising with a long-term partner.

Couples where the wife out-earns the husband are also diverse:

  • The husband is a good-for-nothing who neither works nor helps around the house.
  • The husband doesn’t have a paying job, but takes care of the house and kids.
  • The wife temporarily supports her husband while he finishes a degree or starts a business.
  • The husband is disabled.
  • The household lives off the income from the wife’s inherited wealth.
  • Two professionals both make good salaries, but the wife’s is slightly higher.
  • Both spouses have successful careers, but the husband’s is in a less lucrative field.
  • The husband is older and has retired before the kids are out of the house.
  • Two unskilled workers struggle to find minimum-wage jobs; this year the wife got more hours.

Now lump all those households together, give the new category a catchy name, and then post this graph about how it’s growing.

What have you accomplished, really? Well, mainly you’ve created a monster, a Rorschach Test onto which people can project all their fears about social change. What you haven’t done is raise a worthwhile topic for discussion, because what true statement can anyone make about all those households?

Deep in those numbers somewhere is a phenomenon that’s actually disturbing: children born to never-married women who are too young and too poor and too uneducated to give them a decent shot at success, especially without help from a spouse. That’s nowhere near 40% of households, but it easily becomes the stereotype for the whole group.

That stereotype is what Fox Business Channel’s Juan Williams was reacting to when he said that this trend “is tearing apart minority communities even more than white communities”. Are minority communities being torn apart by women who get high-paying jobs? Of course not. But they might get torn apart by households that don’t have either the personal or monetary resources necessary to give their children a shot at success. A study of that trend would be useful — is that number growing? I’d really like to know — but it wouldn’t have a big headline statistic like 40% of American households.

It’s no wonder a high-achieving mom like Fox News’ Megyn Kelly lashed back at the male Fox pundits who stereotyped her.

But you know who also should be offended? Dads. By lumping single moms together with primary-provider moms, Pew is saying that the two situations are similar. In other words, a man who can’t out-earn his wife might as well not be there at all.

Think about it. John McCain and John Kerry are out-earned by their wives. Michelle Obama has a book out. What if it became such a wild best-seller that her income went higher than Barack’s? Would it then make sense to lump the President in with men who got a girl pregnant and vanished?

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  • Christine Thompson  On June 3, 2013 at 10:03 am

    Thanks for pointing out the statistical idiocy; I confess that I hadn’t actually yet looked at that aspect of the study. I’d gotten to hooked into the, “Well, so? How long do we women have to pander to these weak male egos that break down if we outdo them in anything?” Your comments are very much on target, and a much-needed corrective to the hysteria over this ‘study.’

  • Trevor Edmond  On June 3, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    From your summary I have to say that it indicates a very poorly designed research using ill defined terms. PEW researchers should be sent back to school and banned from publishing for the next three years.

  • Don Pettit  On June 4, 2013 at 6:56 am

    very helpful perspective. I actually see it as a positive that there are more households where the woman outearns the man….and see it as hugely unhelpful to blend it with single mom statistics. Single Moms have a very different, and difficult challenge as a group. You can structure policy to address them. You have to ask yourself if the same is true of primary breadwinners. that feels like something that social development will take care of

  • Brent  On June 12, 2013 at 12:42 am

    13.7 million households is a small percentage of 300+ million Americans, to begin with.

  • Daniel  On June 12, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Another family of cases lumped under “single mother”: parents who aren’t married, for one reason or another, and the mother is listed as “head of household” for one reason or another. That counts as “single mother” even if they’re living together in a monogamous relationship, raising the kids together, and the father out-earns the mother.

    Really I think the way to make sense of the category is to invert it. The study records the decline of the breadwinner dad: a man married to the mother of his children, whom he lives with and out-earns. That was a powerful social expectation for a while, not because it was brilliantly well-conceived or functional, but as a matter of sociological happenstance. As its economic and theoretical underpinnings have steadily eroded, as the pressure to do things that way has weakened and it has become less viable in practice, naturally every other way of doing things has gained ground at its expense. This study comes close to making a single category out of “every other way of doing things”, though as you note they did leave out some, like “teenager raising her kid in her parents’ house” and also the important “decided not to have kids in the first place”.

    Anything that eats away at gender inequality, sex-based behavioral expectations, the institution of marriage, or monogamy will eat away at the prevalence of “breadwinner dad”. Also, more subtly, anything that eats away more globally at the idea of propriety, the strength and rigidity of social norms and the importance of obeying them–or economic changes that make it more difficult or less practical to obey them.

    I was reminded of what you said in “Red Family, Blue Family”, about the decline of the Inherited Obligation family, and the fear over that decline among those most invested in that frame.


  • By Submission | The Weekly Sift on June 3, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    […] Pew study about … well, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about, as I outline in Category Error — the problem with that “breadwinner mom” study  … anyway, it set off a hilariously neanderthal discussion by this all-male panel on Fox […]

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