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Feminomics: Red v. Blue Family Paradigms

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From an economic standpoint, will 2010 be the year of the woman? As part of the Roosevelt Institute's ongoing 'Feminomics' series, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog, we were asked to reflect on women's changing roles in the economy. Here's our take on clashing family models and how poverty gets passed down.

The nonmarital birth rate is close to 40%. Slightly less than half of all marriages end in divorce. The teen pregnancy rate is increasing.

Hidden by the statistics on family instability is a big success story. College-educated women are the only group in the country whose marriage rates have increased, and their divorce rates have fallen back to the levels of the mid-sixties -- before no-fault divorce or the widespread availability of the pill. At the same time, the Census Bureau reports that highly educated mothers are more likely to work than are their less-educated counterparts. With stagnating incomes for the working class, this upper quarter of families, concentrated in urban areas and the blue states on the coasts, has increased the advantages their children enjoy. Their secret: invest in women as well as men, empower reproductive choice, support companionate relationships, and reap the benefits of family formation by mature parents with a measure of financial security.

For everyone else, family life continues to be an unfolding disaster. The United States has the highest unintended pregnancy rates in the developed world, and it is highest for the poorest segments of the population. Over time, this class-based disparity has only gotten worse. The Guttmacher Institute reports that while between 1994 and 2001 unintended pregnancies fell 20% for higher socioeconomic women, they rose 29% among women living below the poverty level. Since 2002, contraceptive use has declined, with low-income women of color leading the way. In 2006, teen pregnancies rose for the first time since 1991, and the racial group with the largest increase was African-American teens. The economic downturn is propelling a further switch away from more effective (and expensive) contraceptives. The only thing preventing a larger increase in unwanted births is abortion.

The role of the family in aggravating economic inequality is the product of a short-sighted culture clash. The areas of the country that have most enthusiastically embraced the new "blue" model of family life have seen teen birth and divorce rates plummet. In contrast, "red" marriage promotion, which tries to control sex rather than childbearing, is a proven failure. Abstinence-only education has made it more likely than fifteen years ago that poor and minority women will have received no information about birth control at the time of their first sexual encounter. And restrictions on public services for immigrants make it less likely that young Latinas will have access to contraception.

The red family system of abstinence promotion, restrictions on contraceptive access, and shotgun marriage creates a vicious cycle: too-young mothers locked into unwanted pregnancies, who leave school too soon and struggle to raise children in non-marital or divorce prone families. Bristol Palin -- the daughter of the former governor of Alaska -- who gave birth at 17 and became an ambassador for abstinence education and Levi Johnston - her former fiancé -- now posing for Playgirl and battling her for custody, are the role models of the red family system.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.