The Class Gap in Unplanned Babies

The Class Gap in Unplanned Babies

Are the poor victims of an unjust economy or of self-destructive cultural norms? New York Times columns by David Brooks and Ross Douthat, the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report on the black family, and the publication of Our Kids, a book by Robert Putnam that is sure to supplant Thomas Piketty's Capital as the inequality manifesto du jour seem to be reigniting that familiar debate.

The new Brookings Institution study "Sex, Contraception, or Abortion: Explaining Class Gaps in Unintended Childbearing" sure looks like evidence for the first premise. And its conclusion -- that poor women have more unplanned children than affluent women in large part because they can't afford, and have less access to, contraception and abortion -- will make intuitive sense to a lot of people.

But as is often the case when the subject is sex, common sense is beside the point. Plenty of evidence not covered in the Brookings report shows poor women to be considerably more adaptable than an economic or "structural" theory would allow.

The researchers, Richard V. Reeves and Joanna Venator, based their conclusion on one year of national survey data on 3,885 single women between 15 and 44 who were not trying to get pregnant. Dividing the women into five income groups, they found little difference in sexual activity. They also discovered no significant gap in how women felt about a possible pregnancy. At all income levels, the large majority -- between 65 and 72 percent -- said they would be upset if they got pregnant, though, perhaps surprisingly, close to 30 percent of women, from rich to poor, said they wouldn't mind.

However, the women differed in two crucial ways. First, lower-income women were two times as likely not to use contraception and three times as likely to become pregnant. Second, higher-income women were far more likely to abort an unplanned pregnancy. Higher-income women terminated 32 percent of their pregnancies; for poor women, the number was 9 percent.

The authors acknowledge that poor and well-to-do women might have differing attitudes about abortion. They also nod toward the idea, most fully brought to life in Kathy Edin and Maria Kefalas's landmark Promises I Can Keep, that poor young women find more fulfillment in motherhood. But they underline economic disadvantage as a cause of the unplanned-baby gap, and reasonably enough propose more funding for contraception and abortion.

Still, their argument remains at odds with a lot of other evidence about poor women's choices. For one thing, despite their hardship, disadvantaged women still have far more abortions than better-off women; poor and low-income women get close to 70 percent of all abortions. That fact, unmentioned in the Brookings report, may seem inconsistent with its findings, but it's not. Affluent women are more likely to terminate a particular unplanned pregnancy, but because poor women become pregnant at far higher rates, they have more abortions overall. Moreover, about half of all women getting abortions have had at least one previously; many if not most of them are low income.

One way of examining the question of whether hardship is at the root of the unplanned-baby gap is to ask whether locales with more publicly funded family-planning clinics have less unplanned pregnancy. Guttmacher estimates the percentage of the need for publicly funded services that is met in each state and the number of women per 1,000 who have unplanned pregnancies. But as the scatterplot below shows, there is no solid relationship between the two. Alaska and California outperform other states in terms of servicing needy women: About 60 percent of the need for publicly funded care is met. The states' unintended-pregnancy rates, though not the highest in the nation, are still impressive: 50 out of every 1,000 women. That’s about the same as a number of states, including Arizona, Ohio, and Illinois, that are only helping about 20 percent of the women who need it. That sure makes it look like money and access by themselves cannot explain the unplanned-pregnancy gap

The structural theory does seems to work better when it comes to abortion. (To get motive off the table, disclosure seems useful in these discussions: I am in favor of legalized abortion.) Guttmacher ranks all of the states by teen pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates; since the vast majority of teen births are unplanned, we can draw some conclusions about how much abortion reduces overall unplanned pregnancy. In general, as seems logical, women in states where abortions are relatively common have fewer unplanned babies. New York ranks 11th in teen pregnancy, but it sits way down at 43rd in teen births; the fact that it has the highest abortion rate of all 50 states surely explains that difference. Conversely, some states where anti-abortion feelings run especially high, like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, have very low abortion and very high birth rates.

But it’s worth noting there are states that have low birth rates without high abortion rates. These tend to be low-poverty states where fewer teens get pregnant to begin with: South and North Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Nevada rank low on both metrics.

But that hardly means more abortion is the only way poor women will have fewer unplanned children. Fertility rates declined across the board between 2008 and 2011, but they dropped markedly more among high-school dropouts, who are generally the poorest of the poor. The least educated women experienced a dramatic 17 percent drop in fertility. That's compared to 1 percent among women with a BA or more. Note also that between the recessionary years of 2008 and 2011, the abortion rate declined 13 percent. In this case, poor women were able to avoid pregnancies because of hardship, not in spite of it. This is precisely the opposite of what the structural theory would predict.

The amazing decline in teen-pregnancy rates offers another good counterexample to economic theories. Almost all teens who have children are poor. Yet between 1990 and 2010, through both bull and bear labor markets, teen births declined by over 50 percent. During the same period that teen pregnancy was in a freefall, the abortion rate among teens was plummeting by 64 percent.

How did this utterly unexpected shift happen? Here’s one possibility we might consider: By the 1990s, a growing consensus was taking hold that teen motherhood was just a really bad idea. "If you took a 15-year-old with a child, but put her in a clean apartment, got her a diploma, gave her the hope of a job, that would change everything," then governor Mario Cuomo was comfortable saying in the 1980s. By the mid-'90s, a smart politician like Cuomo would never say such a thing. Could it be that teens were becoming alert to changing cultural norms about teen motherhood? After all, even while teens were having so many fewer unplanned babies during those years, their twentysomething older sisters were having more.

Unplanned childbearing plays a role in creating the inequalities that so trouble the minds of Americans today. "Since unintended childbearing is associated with higher rates of poverty," the Brookings authors write, "less family stability, and worse outcomes for children, these gaps further entrench inequality ... to close the gaps, we must first understand them."

They're right. But we’ll need to move beyond economic theories to do that.

Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of City Journal, the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age.

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