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Moms' Roles Rising as Lead Breadwinner

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Women earn more than men in almost a quarter of U.S. households, a huge leap from 50 years ago, when only a handful of women brought home more income, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center.

Women are now the leading or solo breadwinners in 40 percent of households, compared with just 11 percent in 1960, according to Census Bureau data analyzed by Pew.

That's both good and bad, depending which part of the ladder you're on: At the top, educated women are catching up with men in the workforce, but on the bottom rungs are more single moms than ever—most of them living near the poverty line.

(Read More: Mom's Work, Never Done, Is Now Worth Less, Too)

"It's a long-term trend since the '60s that the breadwinner moms have gone up," said Wendy Wang, a Pew research associate and the lead author of the report.

Seventy-one percent of husbands are working in households where women make more money than their spouses, and they have a median family income of $80,000, according to 2011 data.

In 1960, only 4 percent of women made more than their husbands; it's now 23 percent. That translates into 5.1 million married "breadwinner moms." Of those making more than their husbands, 49 percent have at least a college degree, 65 percent are white and 67 percent are between the ages of 30 and 50.

(Read More: How Much Americans Think Families Need to Get By)

Women, who for generations were not in the workforce in the same numbers as men, are still catching up. The Pew study noted that despite the fact that women are now equally or better educated than their husbands, most men still earn more than their spouses.

While Oprah Winfrey and Marissa Meyer are often mentioned as high-profile examples of that trend, the other end of the economic spectrum is driving the numbers.

The other part of the female breadwinner equation focuses on the steep rise in unwed mothers. In 1960, only 5 percent of women with children were unmarried. In 2010, that number had increased to 41 percent, according to research from the National Center for Health Statistics cited in the Pew report. The median income for a single mother who has never been married was $17,400 as of 2011. That can include income from a job, child support and government assistance.

(Read More: No Paid Vacation? You Must Be an American)

Of the never-married mothers, 49 percent have a high school education or less, and 46 percent are 30 or younger; 40 percent were black, 24 percent Hispanic and 32 percent white.

The Pew survey also gauged opinion on more women becoming the primary breadwinner."The public is really conflicted about the trend," Wang said.

Overall, survey respondents liked the economic benefits to their families but also worried that work might take a toll on their children and marriages. About 67 percent said the change made it easier for families to earn enough money to live comfortably; about 28 percent said it was harder for families to earn enough, and 2 percent said it made no difference, according to Pew.

By CNBC's Amy Langfield

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