The fertility divide

Short version: more educated women are having ever fewer children; poorer women are having more and more unplanned children.  Longer version:

 Because the American fertility rate is an average, it obscures the fact that our country is actually more like two countries, which are now experiencing two different, serious crises.

You hear about the “haves” versus the “have-nots,” but not so much about the “have-one-or-nones” versus the “have-a-fews.” This, though, is how you might characterize the stark and growing fertility class divide in the United States. Two new studies bring the contrasting reproductive profiles of rich and poor women into sharp relief. One, from the Guttmacher Institute, shows that the rates of unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women now dwarf the fertility rates of wealthier women, and finds that the gap between the two groups has widened significantly over the past five years. The other, by the Center for Work-Life Policy, documents rates of childlessness among corporate professional women that are higher than the childlessness rates of some European countries experiencing fertility crises.

And, this is bad:

If our overall fertility rate is at replacement level—if we have enough young people in the pipeline to do all the jobs that will need doing going forward—does it really matter so much if some women are having more kids than they are ready for and some are having fewer? Unfortunately for women on both ends of the economic spectrum, it does. Poorer women suffer when they have unintended births—as do their children. Research shows that women with unplanned pregnancies are more likely to smoke, drink, and go without prenatal care. Their births are more likely to be premature. Their children are less likely to be breastfed, and more likely to be neglected and to have various physical and mental health effects. Then, reinforcing the cycle, the very fact of having a child increases a woman’s chances of being poor.

Well, then, the Greene family is doing our part to fight back!  Four(!) planned children who’ve been breastfed and not neglected (we think).  Your turn, educated readers.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

14 Responses to The fertility divide

  1. This is due to the great social experiment started by Johnson with the Great Society Program where he basically said that the government will be your daddy. At that time homes with two parents in the black household were almost 90% now it is about 37%. The unintended pregnancies are definitely intended. We now have 4rth generation welfare families where the girl gets pregnant, gets a section 8 aparmtment, food stamps and free medical care for her and her kids.

    As long as the government is willing to pay your way there will always be women willing to take them up on it and the jails are now full of
    kids who grew up in single parent families as well as illiterate.

    John Wilder

  2. Mike Barr says:

    I agree that the incentive structure created by current welfare policies needs to be examined, and some changes are due, although I have no answers. A recent article in the local paper set me off on a rant the other day: a grandmother in Cary NC has custody of 3 or 4 of her grandchildren, with another likely on the way. She is petitioning the state to allow her to receive the same monthly support than a foster parent gets. Seems reasonable, I suppose. But what ticks me off is that the grandmother’s oldest daughter has 4 kids, is unmarried, and has little or no support from the father(s). The younger daughter has 2 children, same situation. One of the daughters is pregnant again. That’s 7 kids with absent father(s) and mothers who are presumably underemployed and probably unemployable given their utter lack of self-control, judgment, and responsibility. What the hell is wrong with these people!! This is a scenario where I would be tempted to support medical sterilization (something that can be reversed, and I’d start with the men) of people who are obviously unable to take any responsibility for their actions. OK, I guess if I actually had the power to authorize such a program, I wouldn’t, at least not until I tried something else that would seriously alter this type of destructive behavior. PS. The family is white.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Yeah, I caught that story, too. Situations like these are always tough because how much do you really want to punish the kids for the fact that their parents seem to lack self-control, judgment, and responsibility. I don’t know what the answer is (certainly much more comfortable with male, rather than female, sterilization, though I don’t think that’s it). Any programs that help to break the cycle with these kids from repeating the mistakes of their parents is where I would want to invest.

  3. Imagine that a couple of liberal guys actually agreeing with an insane republican guy. Whoda thunk it?
    John Wilder+

  4. Jason Pigg says:

    I have no problem with calling an irresponsible person an irresponsible person, or with believing that government programs can have an effect on behavior– but strongly disagree with the conclusions that you three strange bedfellows seem to be reaching! My suspicion would be that it’s not the welfare system– especially not the post-Clinton/Gingrich reformed welfare system– that is to blame for these trends, but the growing level of economic inequality seen since the early 1970s. If lower-income people had viable economic opportunities, access to free family planning resources (and the education to make use of them), some accumulated family wealth– all of these would make a huge difference. Given that I believe that human nature is the same across countries (with people everywhere prone to be hard-working or lazy, inquisitive or not), how could anyone argue that it is the presence of our bare-minimum welfare system that is to blame EXCEPT to make the argument that we need a more ROBUST welfare system and MORE government intervention to provide economic and social opportunities for all of our citizens? I don’t think the very large and very poor families in Dickens’ Britain were a result of too much welfare assistance! (Or, on the other side, that countries with extremely generous welfare assistance like Sweden are facing a greater crisis of “lazy poor people” than the U.S….)

  5. Steve Greene says:

    Tell us what you really think, JP. I generally agree with you, but I do think there is probably something to the conservative argument of creating a culture of dependency. Now, that just might be a necessary and unfortunate consequence of doing the needed interventions, but I think this arguments deserve a fair hearing. As I alluded, for me it always comes back the kids and I strongly oppose punishing children for the sins of the parents, even if that means “unworthy” parents are rewarded.

    • Mike Barr says:

      The problem is that by continuing to avoid punishing the
      “parents” we perpetuate the problem across generations and the number of children affected goes up over time.

      JP, you listed a bunch of variables, none of which puts any of the responsibility, or to put a positive spin on it, empowerment, on the individual. Also, income polarization and declining economic opportunities later in this generational cycle. Also, we know that out-of-wedlock children at a young age are powerful predictors of poverty and a host off other negative life outcomes, for adult and child. All in all, I think your cause and effect is out of order.

  6. Jason Pigg says:

    How should we punish these parents in a way that leads us out of this situation? Denying them benefits, putting them in jail, creating poor houses? I know I’m being hyperbolic, but how would any punishment actually improve things? I suppose I’m more of a collectivist in the sense that this is a problem for all of us that should be solved in a way that benefits all of us, and I don’t see any other route that greater government intervention in the economy, such as through more redistributive tax policies combined with more economic assistance (and family planning) for poor families.

    • Jason, Jason, Jason
      How insulting you are and demeaning implying blacks are too stupid to know where babies come from. We have sex education in schools and free birth control throuogh planned parenthood and in the schools as well. You are clearly not in touch with reality.

      We also have Planned Parenthood primarily locating abortion clinics in black neighborhoods.

      We have women with 3 kids and 3 different fathers as the norm.

      You don’t punish the parents but you require workfare that they have to work for their welfare. We have women collecting food stamps and selling them for .50 on the dollar and eating at missions and collecting food from food banks to have money for booze, cigararettes and drugs. I have seen it repeatedly with my own eyes.

      Unless and until we are willing to address this amid the shouts of racism then we will continue to have all kinds of kids out of wedlock.

      Even if the girl did not know anything about birth control which is a HUGE stretch, her physician makes sure that she knows it the first time she is pregnant.

      Your arguments just donn’t hold up under reality.

      John Wilder

  7. Jason Pigg says:

    Wow, I missed the part where I singled out black women. Leaving that aside, to say that we have sex eduction in schools and free birth control through Planned Parenthood is just so misleading; we sort of have sex education, in some schools, and some women have some access to cheap or free birth control– but, as the article Steve started this great discussion with noted:

    “At the same time, there’s little question why poorer women are having more unintended pregnancies. Only about 40 percent of women who needed publicly funded family planning services between 2000 and 2008 got them, according to the Guttmacher Institute. During that same period, as employment levels and the number of employers offering health insurance went down, the number of women who needed these services increased by more than 1 million.”

    And then, when you get into the data from the study noted above, you have this:

    “In 1994, the unintended pregnancy rate among women with incomes below the federal poverty line was 88 per 1,000 women aged 15–44; it increased to 120 in 2001 and 132 in 2006—a 50% rise over the period. At the same time, the rate among higher-income women (those with incomes at or above 200% of the poverty line) fell from 34 in 1994 to 28 in 2001 and 24 in 2006—a 29% decrease. Poor women’s high rate of unintended pregnancy results in their also having high—and increasing—rates of both abortions (52 per 1,000) and unplanned births (66 per 1,000). In 2006, poor women had an unintended pregnancy rate five times that of higher-income women, and an unintended birth rate six times as high.”

    To me this doesn’t imply that the tougher welfare restrictions signed into law by Clinton discouraged unintended pregnancies, but that the disparity in education, resources, and access is the main culprit. The study also finds that “poor women who are married have unintended pregnancy rates more than twice as high as those of higher-income women who are unmarried or cohabiting,” so it’s not just a stable family issue.

    All of this leads me to think that somehow blaming or punishing or more severely restricting the resources these poor women have would only make matters worse, not better.

  8. Mike Barr says:

    For me it is not a matter of punishing folks for personally and socially destructive behaviors. I would prefer to implement policies that provide disincentives for these types of behaviors, with the aim of discouraging the prevalence of the behavior in the future. If this works, then you have a smaller problem down the road. The problem is that removing incentives, installing disincentives, can have the effect punishing the people who have already made the mistakes, as it were.

  9. Mika says:


    “Research shows that women with unplanned pregnancies are more likely to smoke, drink, and go without prenatal care.”

    caught my eye. I guess some women don’t enter prenatal care, which might reduce the problems they mention afterwards, because they’ll would have to pay for it.

    One solution to this problem could be a cost-free prenatal (and for a limited period postnatal) care for every mother (and father and child) like we have in Finland. Of course it’s not a free lunch, our (socialist) government (us tax payers) pays for it. It’s a voluntary service, but I’d think practically every mother takes part in it. There’s also an incentive to take part, if you don’t undergo a medical examination at a maternal welfare clinic, you won’t get this

    kind of a maternity package (or 140 euros which is way less than the amount of money the items in the package would cost you) for free.

    It’s really odd that despite the huge amounts of money you guys spend for health care, you don’t have a system that takes good care of the most vulnerable members of your society, unborn and born children. There is a moral argument, every society should take care of it’s members who can’t do that by themselves. Every society should give for every newborn best possible chances to become a productive member of that society. There is also economic point of view. There is no nice way to write this and I’m writing this only from the economic point of view – for example every born FAS-child costs a lot more to a society than (s)he will ever bring to it (despite excellent prenatal care my daughter was born for some unknown reasons (not alcohol, I’ll say that) as a SGA-child with heart defect so because of her postnatal intensive care and heart operation she cost a lot to our (socialist) government (us tax payers)). If there was a cost-free possibility for every alcoholic mother to enter prenatal care there might be less FAS-children born and that might be cost-effective for a society in the long run. Not to mention what it might mean to the child in question.

  10. Steve Greene says:

    Thanks so much for that perspective, Mika. I really appreciate the economic argument because while the moral argument is clearly more persuasive with liberals, conservatives should at least be persuaded by the economic argument. I think a lot of “welfare” policies are actually in the long-term interest of *all* taxpayers, it’s just that they don’t see it this way. Usually, because welfare benefits “others.”

  11. Jason, you just made my point for me with your stats. Women have access to birth control information, they are just not accessing it because they are deliberately becoming pregnant to get into the welfare system. I have lived in predmominantly black areas and even the dumbest black woman knows how to prevent pregnancy, she just chooss not to. It is in her interest to pump out the kids because of the welfare system. It is not in her interest to get married because the welfare system strongly discourages that. We need a complete revamping of the system without the screams of racism.

    John Wilder

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