Sexist comments made on Fox News following the report that a record number of women earn more than their spouses hides the realities of the research, which reveals continued class and gender inequality for women.
Pew Research's May 29 study, which found that mothers are the primary or sole breadwinner in a record 40 percent of all American households with children, sparked backlash at Fox News, with several Fox contributors claiming the research revealed the breakdown of American society. Fox News contributor Erick Erickson claimed the rise in female breadwinners was contrary to the natural order and was “tearing us apart,” and later doubled-down on his remarks on his blog and radio show, claiming that women who believe “they can have it all” are the "crux of the problem."
The sexism in Erickson's comments has been denounced, even by his own female coworkers at Fox News. The inflammatory rhetoric, however, also serves to hide the facts behind the research: that income inequality and class division are still deeply-rooted problems in America, revealing once again the need for equal pay and a strong social safety net.
What the study highlighted, and what Erickson and his fellow Fox News commentators ignored, is the persistent class divide among mothers. According to the data, married mothers who earned more than their husbands were “disproportionally white and college educated.” The single mothers, on the other hand, were “more likely to be black or Hispanic, and less likely to have a college degree.” They also made significantly less: single mothers in the study had a median income of $23,000, about a quarter of the median income of couples with a female primary earner. If those single mothers were never married, their median income dropped to $17,400, hovering near the poverty threshold.
Furthermore, though more women may be “breadwinners,” women still earn significantly less than men. The report showed that 75 percent of husbands still make more than their wives. In fact, women's wages decreased in 2012, causing the gender-wage gap to widen with women earning only 80.9 percent of what men earned, or about $163 dollars less per week. If men are earning less in their households, as Slate's Amanda Marcotte noted, this means “less money overall for the average American home”:
What's really hurting Americans isn't female equality, but growing income inequality between the rich and everyone else. Pitting men against women is simply a distraction from the real economic issues facing us all.
Economist Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, estimates that if the gender-wage gap were closed, it would grow the U.S. economy by at least three to four percentage points. And as Senator Elizabeth Warren highlighted earlier this year, a recent study showed that flat minimum wage growth over the past 40 years has coincided with increased inequality across a number of indicators. Had the minimum wage grown at the same rate as productivity, workers would currently be making about $22 an hour. Whether men or women are winning the bread seems less important when overall income inequality in the U.S. is getting worse. As The Huffington Post reported, the poor are getting poorer while the rich “just keep getting richer,” largely thanks to low tax rates for higher earners and cuts to the social safety net.
Closing the gender-wage gap and providing access for mothers to basic necessities like childcare and family planning services, particularly the lower-income single mothers highlighted in the Pew research, would help the economy. The Center for American Progress found that low-income families can spend an average of 52.7 percent of their income on childcare expenses, and in spite of their rising status as “breadwinners,” women still spend “more than twice as much time as men providing primary care to children.” Studies show that providing these mothers with affordable access to universal preschool and paid family and medical leave would increase employment and help the economy. And research from the Guttmacher Institute shows that providing women with access to affordable contraception increases workforce participation, economic stability, and children's well-being.
But Fox doesn't want to talk about the benefits to women and families that come from access to equal pay, family planning, or childcare, which is why they turn to demonizing these programs and fearmongering about the dissolution of society instead. The sexist reactions serve to remove reason and fact from the real issue at hand: that women are still unequal, both in the home and the workforce, and fearmongering will only allow that inequality to remain.