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Breadwinner Moms

Suddenly there’s a new term in our social lexicon to describe a trend both exciting and challenging: the breadwinner mom, the mother who is either the sole or primary breadwinner in her family. In 1960, only 11% of American households fit that description. Now, a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data puts the share at 40%, an all-time high.

Since experts say that this trend is irreversible, it’s imperative that we digest what it means, recognize that our social structures don’t match the new reality and do what we can to align work, school and community to better raise our children. The challenge for the Jewish communal world, with an overwhelmingly female workforce, is acute if we believe our values shape how those organizations are actually run.

There is one reason to cheer: The contribution that mothers make to American economic productivity and vitality is now impossible to ignore. Nearly two in five breadwinner moms are married women who earn more than their husbands, and the median family income in those households is well above the national average.

But 63% of breadwinner moms are single, less educated, more likely to be African American or Hispanic, and earning far less than their older, college-educated, disproportionately white counterparts. These single mothers are also more likely than ever to have never been married, a complicated development that deprives their children of the presence — and the income — of their fathers.

In neither category do our social structures match this new reality. Everything from our antiquated school calendar to the lack of reliable public transportation makes worklife more difficult to manage, but what’s truly inexcuseable is the nation’s inability to offer reasonable family leave and quality child care. Forty percent of American workers can’t even avail themselves of the up to three months of unpaid leave promised in the Family and Medical Leave Act, since they work for companies with fewer than 50 employees. Now 20 years old, the FMLA was supposed to herald more humane policies. Instead, in many respects we are moving backward.

Fortunately there is some progress in the Jewish communal world. Four years ago, Advancing Women Professionals set a goal that 100 Jewish organizations would commit to providing decent paid parental leave and/or formal flexible work policies. Thanks to AWP’s efforts, 75 organizations, ranging from start-ups to global networks, have signed up so far. Even this laudable, modest goal, though, cannot be enough.

The Forward’s own experience is instructive here. The policy offering up to four weeks paid family leave goes far beyond what the law requires but is, admittedly, paltry compared with the standard in most European countries. (Israel offers 14 weeks paid leave, and a year unpaid.) Still, even this sort of limited policy can be difficult for a small business to manage on its own — which is why there is an essential role for government to play. The advent of the breadwinner mom means that our public institutions must step up to face a new reality. Women make up almost half the labor force and many have children. We should make it possible to raise those children well.

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