Design Pics / Pete Stec/Pete Stec/Newscom

Design Pics / Pete Stec/Pete Stec/Newscom

In May, the Pew Forum published a new study on “Breadwinner Moms.” The subtitle made the message more explicit: “Mothers are the sole or primary provider in four-in-ten households with children; public conflicted about the growing trend.”

The prevailing narrative in the mainstream media covering the study’s release was that women are finally breaking through gender stereotypes. Leading American newspapers cheered the study with descriptions such as the The Washington Post’s: “Employment and gender roles continue to shift away from the Leave It to Beaver Model.”

The reality behind the study’s results, however, is a little more complex and not all rosy. On July 22, the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) and The Heritage Foundation hosted Breadwinner Mom: Truth Behind the Trend to discuss what should and shouldn’t be celebrated in Pew’s new study.

As Heritage’s Jennifer Marshall explained: “The Pew Forum chose a brilliant way to frame this. It capitalized on this ‘you go girl’ sentiment that is so prevalent in our culture today.”

However, the headlines hide the ugly truth in the Pew Forum’s research. Kay Hymowitz, Manhattan Institute senior fellow, clarified that moms out-earning their husbands are the minority. Two-thirds of breadwinning mothers are single mothers—with a median household income of $23,000 a year.

Sabrina Schaeffer, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, elucidated why the rise of these mothers raising children alone is not something to be celebrated: “We do know that, of the number of unmarried moms, many of them are the sole or primary breadwinner out of necessity, not out of choice.”

Cathy Reisenwitz, a libertarian blogger and daughter of a single mother, raised the same point, adding: “On the lower end of the income spectrum, both of these phenomena come from the same place, which is less the rise of women, but more the fall of low-income, low-education men.”

The Pew Forum’s research is noteworthy—but not wholly in a way we can celebrate. It documents the increase in children who only have one parent who act as provider and nurturer alone. Already, 27.1 percent of children are raised by single parents. The unwed birthrate continues to rise as the marriage rate for women continues to decline, threatening the economic and social well-being of both women and children.

The economic consequences of an increase in unwed childbearing extend well beyond the individual women and children left unprotected by the benefits of marriage. Of the roughly $450 billion in federal welfare spending on low-income families with children in 2011 alone, nearly three-quarters went to single-parent households.

It would be easy to glance at the Pew headline and celebrate a seeming step forward for women. But as the Heritage and IWF panel highlights, the actual findings in the study aren’t all good news for low-income mothers who undertake the burden of being sole providers for their families. It’s time to pay attention to the plight of low-income women and children. It’s time to cheer marriage—the number one weapon against child poverty.