Picture a 21-year-old woman with a high school diploma, a $9-an-hour full-time job, and an apartment she shares with her boyfriend in a poor part of a big city. She accidentally becomes pregnant, and gives birth to a son nine months later. Though the pregnancy was unplanned, she loves her son deeply, and she doesn’t regret having him.
Two years after that, her boyfriend leaves her, and over the next sixteen years, she raises her son alone while dating a succession of men. Obviously, the child will face a number of disadvantages. He’ll grow up in poverty, his mom may not have the greatest parenting skills, he’ll attend poor public schools, he’s at an elevated risk of behavior problems, and in high school he may become so disengaged that he drops out. But what’s at the root of his problems: that his mother did not intend to become pregnant with him? Or that he grew up poor, attended bad schools, and did not benefit from having an involved and loving father?
I’d say it’s the latter. Change the story to say that the same woman deliberately became pregnant at 21, or 23 for that matter, and her son’s circumstances and disadvantages would be largely the same. But to read many pundits, you’d think that the intentionality of a pregnancy changes everything, and that if only we could prevent single women’s unintended pregnancies, the problems of poverty and social immobility would be far easier to address.
By this way of thinking, the solution to single motherhood and its negative consequences boils down to telling disadvantaged women not to have children (yet). Those on the left will emphasize contraception; those on the right, chastity and making wise choices about relationships.
A banner example of this tendency came from Nicholas Kristof in a column last week. He proposes, as the number-one step we can take to address family breakdown, expanding “family planning so that teenagers and young adults don’t have babies they don’t want and are ill-prepared to care for.” In the following sentence he gives a statistic about how many pregnancies are unintended, thus conflating the different categories of unintended and unwanted.
Poor unmarried women don’t just have kids because they don’t use IUD’s. They have kids because they want them.
In point of fact, many poor women want to have children: that’s one obvious reason they have them despite their difficult circumstances and sometimes in the face of opposition from their partners and family members. As Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas document in Promises I Can Keep, “the poor ascribe a higher value to children than members of the middle class do,” and they “view childlessness as one of the greatest tragedies in life.”
In addition, the opportunity costs of motherhood are much lower for poor women versus college-educated women: poor women have less to lose from single motherhood. They’re not dropping out of the Ivy League or turning down an internship on Capitol Hill; whether or not they have kids, they’re likely to remain relatively poor. Even as female college graduates reap financial benefits from delaying marriage and childbearing to ever-later ages, women without a college degree, whose career and relationship prospects are very different, have had the same mean age at first birth for the past two decades.
And without prestigious careers, expensive hobbies, and long-term romantic relationships, disadvantaged women are more apt to consider motherhood a prime source of fulfillment and meaning. So what’s the point in waiting? Poor unmarried women don’t just have kids because they don’t use IUD’s. They have kids because they want them.
Kristof also laments young women having babies they’re “ill-prepared to care for.” But by conventional, upper middle-class standards, will a low-income woman without a college degree and a well-paying job ever be equipped to care for a child? Sure, kids would be better off on average if all women delayed childbearing until they’d achieved a post-secondary education, a well-paying job, and a healthy, committed relationship. And poor people aren’t unaware of all this: They seek out the best jobs they can find, and to quote Edin and Kefalas again, they’re “even more likely than those in the middle class to say they believe that a child raised by two parents is better off than a child reared by one.”
Instead of just preventing disadvantaged women from having children in the first place, why not concentrate on policies that equip them and their partners to care for their children better?
But for too many women, an advanced education, a well-paying job, and a happy marriage (something most low-income young adults want) all seem out of reach: that’s why they don’t wait for those goals to materialize before becoming pregnant. Telling less-educated women to get their lives in perfect order before having kids probably sounds a lot like telling them never to have kids.
So instead of devoting the most resources to preventing disadvantaged women from having children in the first place, why not concentrate on policies that equip them and their partners to care for their children better? Implement the kind of marriage and relationship education programs that have proven effective. Help teens make the transition from high school to a career. Provide adequate health care, including mental health resources, to struggling families. Teach low-income parents how to prepare their children for success in school, and find ways to raise their wages, which alleviates financial stress, puts less strain on relationships, and makes for better parenting. Government, businesses, non-profit organizations, and religious communities could all contribute to these efforts, which we should undertake not just for the sake of societal stability but for the sake of justice.
Rather than telling poor women to keep putting off their dreams of marrying and having kids, let’s try to put those dreams within their reach.