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Research Insights: Economic hardships for divorced mothers in Wisconsin

White paper cut out of a man holding an umbrella made of paper money. A mother and child paper cutout stand next to the father, but are not covered by the money umbrella.

UW–Madison School of Human Ecology PhD student Trisha Chanda’s research was recently published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. Chanda’s article, “Economic Wellbeing and Labor Supply Patterns of Subsequently Divorcing Mothers in Wisconsin” focuses on how divorced Wisconsin mothers are twice as vulnerable as fathers to experience economic hardship.

Below, Chanda shares insights behind her recent publication:

What topics did you explore in this article?

I studied how earnings and employment patterns of divorcing mothers in Wisconsin evolved in the three years leading up to the date when they filed for a divorce petition. I created a new measure to examine an individual’s ability to support themselves and their children on their own earnings after divorce, and I compared outcomes between mothers and fathers. I also looked at how these outcomes differ for various subgroups such as those defined based on the age of the youngest child, and who petitioned for the divorce.

What did you learn from your research?

I learned that mothers increase their employment by about 4 percentage points to be at par with fathers by the time they file a divorce petition. On the other hand, fathers’ employment rates remain steady. Mothers’ earnings increase as well, by about 14 percent over this period, but they earn $20,000 less than fathers annually going into divorce. This makes Wisconsin mothers almost twice as vulnerable to fall into poverty than fathers. Moreover, the inequalities are higher among mothers with younger children.

What surprised you?

I was surprised by the extent to which mothers increased their work in three years, and yet how inadequate that was to fill the huge earnings gap that existed between them and their spouses. This could be because of two things: 1.) The existing gender-pay gap in the U.S. (women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men), and 2.) The increase in employment was driven by part-time work which tends to be more flexible to family needs.

What should readers take away from your article?

Wisconsin mothers who divorce increase their earnings and employment, but not to the extent to make up for the earnings gap with divorcing fathers. While income support and work-family policies could boost mothers’ earnings in the labor market, redefining gender norms to make childcare less of the mother’s responsibility could address some of the barriers they face in finding and maintaining a full-time job both before and after a divorce.

Professional photo of Trisha Chanda
Trisha Chanda

Trisha Chanda is a research assistant for the Institute for Research and Poverty. She is completing her PhD in the Department of Consumer Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Human Ecology. Chanda’s research focuses on issues related to child physical custody arrangements, child support, and mothers’ economic wellbeing.