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Policy Should Focus on Better Contraception, Not More Marriage

More children are at risk of getting stuck in or near poverty, due to current trends in family formation. In 2012, more than 4 in 10 children were born to unmarried women—up from just over 3 in 10 in 2000, and from fewer than 2 in 10 in 1980. Most were born into or near poverty, and will likely live in poor neighborhoods, attend low-performing schools, and be reared by economically insecure single or cohabiting parents--conditions that exacerbate the already declining prospects for upward mobility faced by children born to low-income unmarried mothers.

It would be nice if there were a magic wand that would reverse the trend in nonmarital childbearing and, thus, improve the circumstances of America’s children. But throughout much of the developed world, nonmarital childbearing rates are rising, and many countries have higher and more rapidly rising rates than in the U.S.

What then are the policy levers that might address the family dynamics trends that limit children’s chances of rising to the middle class or above? Ten years ago there was great optimism that carefully crafted programs, like Building Strong Families and Supporting Healthy Marriages, would support healthy relationships between—and strong parenting by—low-income parents, whether married or not. Though they drew on the best available science,  these programs were costly and showed little evidence of improving childrearing environments. 

A more promising strategy might be one that targets three realities:

  1. Over 70% of pregnancies and 50% of all births to unmarried women are unintended. Nearly half of these pregnancies occurred to women who were using contraception.
  2. 1 in 5 children born to unmarried women are described by their mothers as “unwanted,” not simply mistimed.  
  3. 40% of pregnancies end in abortion; 67% of them to very low-income women.

Strategies that aim to improve education about or access to commonly-used contraceptive methods like condoms and the Pill are unlikely to work. I say this based on limited evidence of impacts of such services when offered as part of school health clinics, teen parent programs, or home visitor programs, for example.  

Instead, we should:

The potential benefits of such a strategy are huge. There are nearly half a million children born each year as a result of unintended pregnancies—mainly to low-income, unmarried women who reportedly are using contraception (mainly condoms and the Pill). Simple math indicates high potential yield to reducing this contraceptive failure rate. If these women were to use LARCs, their unintended pregnancy rates would all but disappear, as you’ll hear from Mark Edwards on this blog. Moreover, we would also see a large reduction in abortions, which have high economic, social, and psychological costs.

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