Birth Inequality?

Now I’ve heard everything. We read about income gaps, and wealth gaps, and racial gaps, and gender gaps. But now The Atlantic warns us about the ominously growing “unplanned birth” gap.

Poorer women have always had more unplanned children than affluent women, but it turns out that the gap has been widening since the mid-1990s, leading the article’s author, Gillian White, to wonder if this is an outcome of economic inequality.

But what does that even mean? Inequality isn’t the same thing as poverty, and in fact the standard of living of low income Americans has generally been rising since the 1990s — just at a far slower rate than the standard of living of high income Americans. Is White really investigating whether the rapidly rising incomes of rich women are leading poor women to have more unplanned babies?

Thankfully, no. But that’s why it’s wrong to treat this as an inequality issue. That framework adds nothing but confusion. It leads White to lump together two different questions: why poor women have more unplanned children than richer women, and why more poor women have been having unplanned children than they did in the past.

You might think that the answer to the first question is obvious: poor women are less able to afford contraception and abortions than wealthier women. That’s likely part of it, but in no way is it the whole story.

In fact, personal choice is often the decisive factor. According to White, “Among the wealthiest women, only 11 percent of those who had sex reported not using contraception, for those in the poorest group the rate was more than twice as high.” That disparity clearly isn’t about economics. No one is having unprotected sex because they can’t afford protection: not only are many forms of contraception incredibly cheap, but as White points out “contraception coverage is a requirement for many federally-backed insurance plans,” such as Medicaid.

But White is so focused on looking at the issue from the perspective of economic inequality that she skims over the issue of personal choice. The focus of her account is social, which it has to be if you’re thinking in terms of inequality.

Now it turns out that there is one respect in which this is a social problem: government barriers to abortion. According to White:

[T]here are policies at the state level that can . . . make obtaining an abortion expensive and difficult. For instance, some private insurers are prohibited from covering the procedure, and tightening regulations are leading to fewer providers in some states, like Texas, which means that those seeking abortion face higher financial burdens due to expenses like travel and absenteeism.

That is tragic. No one should be forced to have an unwanted child — especially not the women who can least afford it.

Which leads us back to the second question: why have more poor women been having unplanned children than they did in the past? Well, one possible reason is that these kinds of restrictions on abortion have been increasing since — you guessed it — the mid-1990s.

There’s always a danger in confusing correlation with causation, and so I’m not saying that the rise in unplanned births is explained even mostly by the rise in restrictions on abortion. But that is a far more plausible explanation than rising inequality (a trend which started a decade before the birth gap took off).

My real point is that the current obsession with looking at every issue through the lens of economic inequality is crippling our ability to think about issues like this one. Here we have a complex phenomenon that touches on personal choice, poverty, health care, abortion, and probably a thousand other things, but because White is looking at this issue through the framework of economic inequality, she gets a sort of tunnel vision that, whether she intended it or not, turns the issue of rising unplanned births into little more than another data point in the left’s economic inequality narrative.