WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of working moms who are the sole breadwinners in their families rose last year to an all-time high, and the number of stay-at-home dads edged higher, in a shift of traditional gender roles caused partly by massive job losses.
The number of moms who were the only working spouse rose for the third straight year, according to Census Bureau figures released Friday. The number of dads who were the only working spouse dropped, and the number of stay-at-home dads ticked higher.
The figures are for married couples with kids under 18.
"Women are really stepping in and helping families stay afloat. The question is whether men are stepping up and picking up the slack around home," said Kristin Smith, a family demographer at the University of New Hampshire.
In most households with moms as breadwinners, both parents were working until the husband was laid off or retired, and the wife remained in her job. In other situations, a non-working wife may have rejoined the labor force, in a growing industry such as teaching or health care, to sustain the family income after the husband was let go.
By the numbers, about 4 percent or 963,000 moms were the only parent in the labor force. The share of fathers as the sole worker was much bigger -- 28.2 percent or 7.3 million -- but still the lowest since 2001. The share of couples who both work stayed the same at 66 percent or 17 million.
There were 158,000 stay-at-home dads, up from 140,000 in 2008. Still, the number is less than 1 percent of married couples.
The recession's toll has been harder on male-dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing. There are also longer-term cultural changes at work, too, as more women earn college degrees and the better job opportunities they bring.
"The economic crisis is heavily affecting families, and what the latest data show is that gender roles are flexible and are going in the direction of egalitarian roles," said Pamela J. Smock, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan.
She said the shifts could have lasting effects after the economy rebounds, as people become more accustomed to the roles of breadwinner moms and stay-at-home dads.
Smith sees a continued reliance on wives as breadwinners, "particularly if we see a jobless economic recovery like we did after the 2001 recession."
Her research on working moms found that employed wives last year contributed to 45 percent of total family earnings. That was up from 44 percent in the previous year, the large single-year increase in the last decade.
The latest trends coincide with overall increases in women in the work force. In fact, women are close to outnumbering men in the work force for the first time: Women held 49.9 percent of the nation's 131 million jobs last November, the most recent data available.
Analysts cautioned the latest numbers may be somewhat illusory, since women still hold fewer executive positions and their jobs, particularly among mothers, are often part-time.
Women's pay still lagged men's, though the gap has slowly been narrowing. Women with full-time jobs earned salaries equal to 77.9 percent of what men earned, up from 77.5 percent in 2007 and about 64 percent in 2000.
According to the Census data, the increase in the number of moms as the only worker was seen across all racial and ethnic groups. But it was biggest among black women, whose numbers rose from 9 percent in 2007 to 12 percent last year as black men suffered disproportionately higher rates of unemployment. The share of Hispanic moms rose from 5 percent to 8 percent, while the share of white non-Hispanic women rose from 4 percent to 7 percent and the share of Asian women grew from 5 percent to 7 percent.
Other findings include:
--There are an estimated 5.3 million "stay-at-home" parents in the U.S., based on a narrow definition in which one spouse is in the labor force for the entire year and the other spouse is not for the reason of "taking care of home and family."
--The number of stay-at-home moms declined from 5.3 million in 2008 to 5.1 million last year. That was the lowest since 2001, which was also during a recession.
--About 22.6 percent of married couples with children under 15 had a stay-at-home mom, down from 23.7 percent in 2008.
The 2009 data is based on the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, which was conducted last March.