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Three Policies to Close the Class Divide in Family Formation

family at meal service

We are seeing a growing class divide in America in family formation. Those with less education and less income are much more likely to have a child out of wedlock.

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Children born into continuously married family have much better economic mobility than those in single parent families. To be sure, not all of the effects of marriage on mobility are causal but some of them are.

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Can government policy close this class divide by bringing back marriage?

Many policy makers and social pundits have called for policies to “bring back marriage.” But program evaluations show that the policies tried in the past, such as Building Strong Families, have not been particularly successful. The government should focus not on marriage, but on helping people delay childbearing until they are ready to be parents.

A key element of the class divide in family formation is the amount of planning that goes into family formation. Many people are having children before they are ready and before they want to have children. For unmarried women under 30, 70% of pregnancies are unintended. And unintended pregnancy is most common among those with the least advantage.

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What can be done to reduce unintended pregnancies?

We need government policies that will help people bring their behavior in line with their intentions. With that in mind, I propose three policies which will help people have children when they want to rather than before they are ready.

  1. Focus on education. It’s not a coincidence that as education levels go up in a society, fertility rates go down -- education gives a person the motivation to delay childbearing. To reduce unintended pregnancy, we should improve educational opportunity (such as through career and technical training programs like Career Academies).
  2. Encourage the use of Long Acting Reversible Contraception (LARCs). LARCs (such as IUDs or implants) are much more effective at preventing unwanted pregnancy than other forms of contraception. A study in St. Louis  found that the risk of a woman becoming pregnant while on contraception was twenty times higher while using the Pill, transdermal ring, or hormonal patch than while using a LARC.
  3. Use social marketing to change norms about family planning. Social marketing is an effective tool for changing social norms and behavior. A recent study by Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine found that television shows which depict the reality of teen pregnancy (e.g., 16 and Pregnant) accounted for one-third of the reduction in the teen birth rate in an 18 month period.

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