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What is a Breadwinner?

By Tess C. Taylor
Updated Feb 13, 2024
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In the traditional sense, a breadwinner is the person in a household who earns a living in order to support the daily needs of others. In tax terms, this person is referred to as the head of household or the high income earner. A breadwinner provides the primary financial support for his or her household and often supports a spouse, children, parents and other dependants.

The word breadwinner is actually a slang term that dates back to the early 1800s, when the English equated bread to money. Thus a breadwinner was someone who "supplies a living for others, especially a family.” The word “win” was added which originates from the same Latin root word as “lord.” In many cultures, this person has traditionally been the male head of the household.

The ideology of fathers being the main breadwinners, while mothers stayed home to care for children, was an accepted aspect of life for most households up until the dawn of the industrial age, when women began venturing out into careers in factories and sweatshops. However, in some regions, the husband and father is still seen as the main breadwinner while other family members merely support the family through supplemental income.

While the term breadwinner elevated men to the role of being the main provider, it also created an image of fathers as being aloof figures who weren’t emotionally involved with their children. In addition, many children who grew up in families where there were more than one wage earner, such as in the case when both parents worked, were called “latchkey kids” because they were left alone at home each day to fend for themselves. The rise in women’s’ equality and the overall obsession with material goods in the mid-19th century caused the accepted gender roles to become stale.

In more modern times, the use of the word breadwinner has been modified to include anyone who works outside of the home to support a family. In addition to men being included under this terminology, over half of the world’s women now work outside the home and may be referred to as breadwinners. The overall sense of the term includes anyone who works to support others. As a result, there are different levels of breadwinning, such as the primary or secondary breadwinner.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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