Every once in a while you read something that’s such a clarion call you have to stop and listen. That’s how I felt about Belle Sawhill’s “Beyond Marriage” in last Sunday’s New York Times.
Sawhill lays out the facts: The social norm of marriage-then-babies is rapidly disappearing across much of America. More than 40 percent of babies are born outside of marriage; most of the pregnancies are unplanned and many of the couples split up before the children reach their fifth birthday.
Once children are born, parents—and often the moms alone—have to meet the many challenges of parenthood while foregoing education to find low-wage jobs, just to provide the basics of food and shelter. In all this, the children—the next generation of Americans—themselves face futures limited by poverty and family stress. ( Sawhill’s statistics were made vividly real a few weeks ago in a Times story describing the daily life of Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old mother of a five-year-old child, as she juggles childcare responsibilities with her unpredictable shifts as a Starbucks barista.)
Many factors contribute to this grim cycle: High school drop-out rates, incarceration of young men, a minimum wage that is too low to permit even fulltime workers to pay rent. But it is one event, the birth of a baby to parents who just aren’t ready, that prevents an exit to higher incomes and family stability.
If women are not waiting for marriage to have children, Sawhill asserts that a new social norm has to be fostered: women and their partners must take the responsibility for waiting to be parents until they are ready, both emotionally and financially. The norm must shift from drifting into parenthood to taking that momentous step only with deliberation and forethought.
Hard as shifting social norms is, the good news is that we have birth control methods that switch the default setting from “get pregnant” to “don’t get pregnant.” When women choose an IUD or an implant, instead of the Pill, condom or blind hope, they can count on effective pregnancy prevention for several years. Then, when they want to get pregnant, they can remove the device and regain their fertility quickly. This technology is a boon to the cause of responsible parenthood.
And yet it is access to precisely this type of birth control that is under threat. Long-term methods like IUDs, which are cost-effective over the long term, are expensive. A woman working fulltime at a minimum wage job would spend her monthly paycheck just to get one, and many women who would benefit do not have insurance coverage to help share the cost. The Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid do promise to cover the high upfront costs of long-acting reversible contraceptives, as well as all other methods. But challenges to the contraceptive coverage provision and the reluctance of some states to expand Medicaid are limiting access. The government, Sawhill points out, is not doing all it could to support women and couples who want to wait until they’re ready.
What is most refreshing about Sawhill’s piece is that she clearly and persuasively connects issues that so often are discussed in isolation. Birth control is certainly part of women’s health care, yes. But it is far more than that. It is an essential determinant of how lives unfold, and it is deeply intertwined with the kind of society all our children will grow into over the decades to come.