What Is a Breadwinner?

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A breadwinner generally refers to an income earner in a household whose wages provide most of the support for a household.

Key Takeaways

  • The term “breadwinner” often refers to the person who is the primary or sole earner in a household.
  • An unmarried breadwinner might be eligible to file as head of household for federal and state taxes, provided certain conditions are met, which can lead to some tax savings.
  • Being a breadwinner can also potentially make someone eligible for other benefits such as certain types of federal assistance programs.

How Being a Breadwinner Works

The term “breadwinner” often is used for someone who earns most of the household income, such as if one parent works outside the house while the other provides primary caregiving responsibilities. A couple might be considered to be co-breadwinners if they both earn income, although the person who earns more might still be referred to as the primary breadwinner.

This concept of being a breadwinner can come into play for tax purposes. For example, a single parent might be the breadwinner of their home. In this case, they might qualify to file as head of household for tax purposes. Still, they would need to meet certain conditions, such as paying more than half the costs—e.g., rent and utilities—to keep up a home.

Being a breadwinner also can affect other areas, such as qualifying for disaster unemployment assistance (DUA). This program from the Department of Labor provides assistance to those whose jobs have been affected by major disasters such as hurricanes, yet they don’t qualify for regular unemployment assistance.


If the head of household dies as a direct result of a qualifying disaster and someone then becomes the breadwinner, they might qualify for DUA.

In the case where an unmarried parent is a breadwinner and takes on the majority of the cost of keeping up a home for a qualifying dependent person, such as a young child, they could potentially qualify as head of household for federal and state tax filing purposes. Doing so could enable the breadwinner to save money on their taxes by taking a standard deduction that's larger than what they'd get as a single individual.

However, being a primary breadwinner within a marriage can still provide certain tax benefits.  That’s because those who file jointly as a married couple can take advantage of things such as increased income-tax-bracket ranges and standard deductions for those whose status is married filing jointly as opposed to those who file as single individuals. So, a primary breadwinner who is married might end up paying a lower effective tax rate than a single filer who earns the same amount of money.


If someone is a breadwinner but still considered married (by IRS standards), they would not be able to claim head of household filing status, even if they meet other requirements.

Example of a Breadwinner

A married couple welcomes a newborn child to their family. One spouse stays at home to care for the child while the other spouse goes to work. The working spouse would be considered the breadwinner because their wages are the primary income for the household.

What a Breadwinner Means for Individuals

Aside from any social or cultural implications that may come along with the role, being the breadwinner has additional meaning when it leads to head of household status. Understanding what a breadwinner is can make a difference to individuals when it comes to areas such as filing taxes and qualifying for certain programs like DUA.

However, it’s important to realize that just because you’re the primary breadwinner for your family, that doesn’t necessarily mean you automatically qualify as head of household for tax purposes. While that’s part of it, you would still need to meet other requirements, such as having a qualifying person living with you for most of the tax year. If you’re married or considered married for tax purposes, you wouldn’t qualify for this filing status.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does breadwinner mean?

Generally speaking, a breadwinner is someone who earns the primary income for a household.

Can a woman be a breadwinner?

Yes, a woman can be a breadwinner. The term is not specific to gender; it identifies someone who is the primary income earner in a household.

What is an example of breadwinner?

Both women in a married couple work. One spouse works part-time at minimum wage, while the other spouse works full-time and earns a generous salary. In general, the spouse earning more would be considered the breadwinner.

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  1. IRS. "Publication 501 (2021), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information."

  2. Department of Labor. "Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) Fact Sheet," Page 1.

  3. Code of Federal Regulations. "Title V/Chapter 20/Part 625 - Disaster Unemployment Assistance."

  4. IRS. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2022."

  5. IRS. "FAQs: Filing Status."

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