Over the past two weeks there has been lots of public huffing and puffing over the inclusion (and then exclusion) in the stimulus package of a provision for contraception. Much of the discussion was little more than media hot air, unanchored by anything as weighty as facts. The media discussion was notable for among other things: the absence of experts. To cite one blunder: the shock media gleefully tore into the supposed controversy of a $200 million allocation of taxpayer money for pregnancy prevention, despite the fact that there was no $200 million allocation of taxpayer money for pregnancy prevention. That fable sadly got passed off as fact. In reality, the bill proposed an administrative change that would have saved the states 200 million dollars in five years. (This "mistake" was courtesy of Rep. John Boehner, a friend of the anti-contraception movement.)
In all this, a more important point has been mangled. And that is that family planning has profound economic benefits.
As someone who often writes about the benefits of family planning, I’ve long been struck by the dearth of information on the impact of family planning on economics. I’d once spent some time looking through fifteen years of back issues of the journal Feminist Economics while researching my book on sex and family planning, How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America. Even there I found hardly any articles on the relationship of family planning and the economy.
Recently though, several economists have stepped forward. Writing for the New York Times blog, Economix, Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, writes about family planning and the economy. Those reflexively attacking the inclusion of contraception in a stimulus bill argued that it doesn’t stimulate the economy. Folbre pushes back, arguing in part for the stimulative effects of public support for family planning. She writes,
"Increased spending on family planning (including contraceptives) would generate about as many direct and indirect jobs as any other health expenditures, and probably more than an equivalent tax cut."
But for Folbre the short-term effects are less important than benefits down the road which is where the real savings (and consequently the real economic stimulus) will come. She explains,
"The long-term benefits include significant reductions in unplanned births and abortions. Teenagers, in particular, would benefit. A research paper by Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine finds that recent state-level Medicaid policy changes reduced births among teenagers by more than 4 percent. The authors offer estimates of the cost per averted birth, which could be compared with the social costs — to children, parents, and society — of unwanted pregnancies."
The brainy people over at the Brookings Institute, economist Isabel Sawhill and researcher Adam Thomas, recently echoed this point. On Feb 5th, in a piece entitled, Keep Politics Away from the Promise of Family Planning, the Brookings researchers concluded that when poor women were given access to contraception it "led to a significant reduction in the number of sexually-active women who have unprotected sex." They used that premise to look at the policy’s economic projections, writing,
"We have incorporated this finding into a cutting-edge simulation model of family formation. Our results suggest that a similar expansion in contraceptive services in the remaining states would reduce the annual number of children born out of wedlock by more than 25,000, would reduce the number of pregnancies to unmarried teenagers each year by 19,000, and would reduce the annual number of abortions to unmarried women by nearly 12,000.
Children in single-parent families are more than four times as likely to be poor as children in two-parent families. Moreover, children who were born as the result of an unplanned pregnancy are less likely to have received adequate prenatal care, are more likely to have a low birthweight, and are more likely to perform poorly in school. Unintended pregnancies are also expensive. A recent study by Princeton University’s James Trussell found that unplanned pregnancies generate $5 billion annually in direct medical costs. Many of these expenses are borne by society in the form of subsidized medical care. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the Medicaid family planning provision, if enacted, would result in a net government savings of $700 million over ten years."
These effects are substantial, and while lost on the media, they do have important economic implications.
Folbre also refers to a study conducted by Harvard researchers worth highlighting. Entitled "The Power of the Pill," it argues that the economic benefits of contraception are particularly important for women’s economic futures. The study points out that the surge of women entering college and the professions seemed to happen almost immediately after the legalization of contraception. Goldin and Katz (authors of the Power of the Pill), found that the percentage of all lawyers and judges who are women more than doubled in the 1970s (from 5.1 percent in 1970 to 13.6 percent in 1980) and was 29.7 percent in 2000. The share of female physicians increased from 9.1 percent in 1970 to 14.1 in 1980 and was 27.9 percent in 2000. Similar patterns hold for occupations such as dentists, architects, veterinarians, economists, and most the engineering fields. (It’s worth pointing out that the legalization of family planning appears to have had an impact on the number of female economists we have today.)
Before we enter into the next debate about the virtues of public funding for family planning, a discussion Obama indicates we will have again soon, we need to hear from more economists like Folbre and Sawhill. They should educate the public and media about the stabilizing force family planning plays in our lives and how that impacts society. Without them, it’ll just be Neil Cavuto on FOX News telling us unwanted pregnancy should be encouraged so we’ll have eventually have more people paying into social security. It’s time for the experts to take the wheel.