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Blue Biology: Women, Economics, and Family Values

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As part of an ongoing discussion of women and economic issues hosted by the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog, we discuss how the Great Recession has exposed the fault lines of traditional family values.

The economy and biology are on a collision course. The latest news confirms what many women fear -- wait too long and your eggs are gone. The scientific findings aren't quite that bad. According to a new study by researchers at the University of St. Andrews and Edinburgh University, by age 30, most women retain only 12 percent of their original egg reserves, and by age 40 just three percent. Three percent may be still be on average 9000 eggs -- more than enough to get pregnant -- but the odds definitely change.

So what we should be doing if we want to make sure our descendants are still around in another generation or two? The answer, like everything else about families and the economy, is two-pronged.

First, the Great Recession is likely to accelerate the ongoing disinvestment in the human capital of the new generation, and initiate a new round of "dumber and dumber." Consider the immediate effect. Hard times make the responsible, thoughtful, cash-pressed wait longer -- there goes that ticking biological clock. The Guttmacher Institute reported last fall that 64% of American women "could not afford to have a baby right now," with almost half saying they wanted to delay or reduce childbearing because of the recession.

Second, tighter finances simultaneously make it harder NOT to get pregnant. The reduction in the teen birth rate in the prosperous nineties, for example, was fueled in part by more reliable contraceptives, but the new techniques, such as Depo-Provera and other injectables, are more expensive than condoms from the local drugstore. Guttmacher also reported last fall that 23% of women were having a harder time affording birth control, and other studies indicate that women in their early twenties, at the peak of fertility, have become less likely to have health care. What does all this mean?

We predict an acceleration of the trends of the last thirty years -- trends that produce family-based inequality in the U. S. A. half century ago, American family lives did not differ markedly by class or region. Today, as we discuss in our book, Red Families v. Blue Families, the part of the country identified with what we call "the Blue Family Paradigm" has embraced a new family strategy geared to the needs of the post-industrial economy. This paradigm emphasizes the importance of women's as well as men's workforce participation, egalitarian gender roles, and the delay of family formation until both parents are emotionally and financially ready. This part of the country already has fertility rates below replacement, and with a 2% drop in overall births last year, we suspect their fertility rates have fallen further.

By contrast, the Red Family Paradigm -- associated with the Bible Belt, the mountain west, and rural America -- rejects these new family norms, and has fought instead to reinstill marriage-based values. In this world, teen childbirth is the necessary deterrent to premarital sex, marriage is a sacred undertaking between a man and a woman, and divorce is society's greatest moral challenge. Yet, the changing economy is rapidly eliminating the stable, blue collar jobs that have historically supported young families, and early marriage and childbearing derail the education needed to prosper. The result is that the areas of the country most committed to traditional values have the highest divorce and teen pregnancy rates, and provide the least support for access to contraception and abortion. In these regions, where overall fertility has remained high, teen pregnancy rates are continuing to rise.

The U.S. has the highest unintended pregnancy rates in the developed world. Last year, the Wall Street Journal celebrated the release of a new National Center for Health Statistics report that showed for the first time in forty years, the average age of first birth fell for women from 25.2 in 2005 to 25.0 in 2006. The Journal took it as a sign that "young women are tuning in more closely to their biological clocks." [Sue Shellenbarger, "No Waiting: Younger Women Are Saying Yes to Motherhood,"]. A more in depth analysis would show that increasing teen births concentrated in the poorest states was a significant factor fueling the increase, and the overall effect was to increase the percentage of American children locked into poverty. Let's do a better job supporting men's and women's life choices!

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.