Candace Keshwar of Jamaica Plain was a stay-at-home-mother until her husband's construction business went under in 2009. She has supported her family ever since.
At one point, her husband got a job stocking shelves at Home Depot, but it did not last because "we couldn't afford for both of us to be working and pay for child care," said Keshwar, 44, who makes $40,000 a year at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
Keshwar, whose husband recently started working nights as a housekeeping manager, is among the many women who were thrust into the role of family breadwinner during the last recession, which hit men disproportionately hard as male-dominated industries such as construction and manufacturing sustained massive job losses.
While women's portion of household earnings has risen steadily over the past two decades, their share of family income had the biggest one-year increase in nearly a quarter century between 2008 and 2009 — the worst of the recession — according to a report by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.
Working wives now account for 47 percent of household earnings, up from 38 percent in 1988, while husband's contributions have dropped to 53 percent from 62 percent, said the study's author, Kristin Smith, a family demographer who used census data to compare earnings of employed married women with those of all married men, including those who were out of work.
Women's contributions to family incomes have historically risen during recessions, as men lose jobs and women become primary breadwinners, Smith said. Those earnings tend to remain higher even after husbands return to work, as families try to make up for diminished bank accounts and other financial losses.
"Anybody who's getting ahead, it's because they're working more, and in most of the households that's women," said Jesus Gerena, director of the Family Independence Initiative in Jamaica Plain, which promotes economic stability for low-income families.
Diane Morea, a nurse in the intensive care unit at Tufts Medical Center, increased her hours nine years ago when her husband quit his job at Verizon to pursue a teaching career. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but then her husband was laid off as a special education teacher at Malden High School in 2009.
Morea, 59, figures she will have to work until she is 67 in order to pay the bills and then collect a larger Social Security check. But given the physical nature of her work, which includes moving patients, she isn't sure she'll be able to.
"I'd retire sooner if he was working," she said.
Households' increasing reliance on women's wages also puts a renewed focus on the gap between men's and women's earnings.
Women's education and salaries have increased over the years, increasing their share of household income, but women on average still earn just 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.
In Massachusetts, where more people have bachelor's degrees than in any other state, the wage gap between men and women is the 13th largest in the nation.
Women in Massachusetts earn 77 cents for ever dollar a man earns, the same as the national average, according to the American Association of University Women, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. In Vermont, by comparison, women earn 87 cents for every dollar earned by men.
Counterintuitively, the wage gap expands as women move up the corporate ladder because there are fewer rules about compensation in upper management, said Victoria Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School.
"It's incredibly important for people to understand that women's wages are key definers of a family's economic life," she said. "For the health of families, communities, and the state, it is imperative that women are paid fairly for their labor."
In households in which men don't have a college degree, women's financial contributions play an even bigger role. Men with lower levels of education were hit hardest by job losses during the recession, and wives' share of family earnings income surpassed husbands in these households, according to the Carsey study. Women married to men with a high school diploma or less provided 51 percent of the household income in 2011, a jump of 4 percentage points from 2009.
More educated men, on the other hand, tend to marry educated women, and these couples' earnings took less of a beating during the downturn, further widening gap between the highest and lowest incomes, said Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.
"At the bottom, women's share is going up largely because men's earning are going down," he said. "At the top, wives are both working more and earning more relative to their husbands, but their husbands' earnings are not declining."
Caitlin LoCascio-King, a lawyer in Auburn, Maine, quit her job in 2011 after she had a baby and started a part-time solo practice. But she ramped up her hours last year when her family's health care costs increased and her husband's pay raises were not keeping up with the cost of living.
"My plan was just to bring in a little money to help my family," said LoCascio-King, 28, who has a 2-year-old and a 9-month-old and trades off child care duties with her husband, who works nights. "It has grown much bigger than that in large part because of the economy."
LoCascio-King estimates she will be the main breadwinner this year, and that is just fine with her husband, a police officer in Portland: "My husband is thrilled with my new nickname, Sugar Mama."