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The Power of the Pill

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To commemorate Women's History Month, the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog asked us to reflect on past accomplishments and explore today's key challenges as part of its ongoing 'Feminomics' series. On the heels of a health care bill passed that raised the issue of reproductive freedom, we look at the impact of the Pill on womens' economic destiny.

It was 50 years ago -- 1960 -- that the FDA first approved the birth control pill. While we're not sure the Pill was the most important invention of the 20th century (we're not quite ready to rule out computers, stem cell research, or ATMs), its impact truly has been radical. Women's ability to control their own fertility was, of course, critical to the '60s sexual revolution, but it has also remade family dynamics for those who continue to prefer conventional family life. The great irony is that as a result the gulf between the economic and sexual experiences of poorer and wealthier women has increased.

Before the pill, rich women and poor women, African-Americans and whites all knew that sex almost always carried a risk of pregnancy and pregnancy could derail plans, prospects and lives. Even the happily married feared that too many births could be the difference between comfortable middle class life and poverty. Early contraceptives were often beyond a woman's control (condoms), risky (IUDs), or unreliable. In a host of states, contraceptives were illegal, even for the married. Pregnancy fears heightened during the true sexual revolution -- that of the fifties -- when the percentage of women who had sex before the age of 21 rose from 40 to 70%, the percentage of brides giving birth within eight and half months of marriage climbed to 30% (the highest percentage since 1800), and the average age of marriage for women fell to 20, the lowest in a century.

The pill reversed the numbers. Since FDA approval in 1960, the average age of marriage for women has risen steadily to almost 26 today, the highest age ever recorded in the United States. Overall fertility has dropped to near replacement levels, and shot gun marriages and adoptions have plummeted. But the embrace of the pill has not affected everyone equally.

The group that most enthusiastically embraced the pill -- and whose lives have been transformed by new patterns of marriage and childbearing -- is the college educated. In a carefully designed study, economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz show that a drop in the age of consent for contraception from 21 to 18 (occurring first in California and Georgia) produced a statistically significant drop in the number of college graduates married by 23 -- and a corresponding increase in educational attainment. Control over fertility opened the door for the large scale movement of women into graduate and professional schools, laying the foundation for prosperous two career families, and a delay in family formation until the late twenties and early thirties. As we discuss in our book, Red Families v. Blue Families with more mature marriages has also come greater prosperity and stability -- the divorce rate for the college educated has fallen back to the levels before no-fault divorce, and income gains dramatically outgain those of the rest of the population.

For other women, however, the effects of pill have been decidedly more mixed. One of the major ironies is that with the ability to prevent unwanted pregnancy has come a large increase in the percentage of children born to unmarried women. Economists George Akerlof, Janet Yellen and Michael Katz maintain that the results are not unrelated. In a world in which all women who engaged in intercourse faced the threat of an unwanted birth, "courtship" used to involve an implied promise -- if the woman got pregnant, the man married her. As women gained the ability to control whether they would become pregnant, the implied promise disappeared. For women who used family planning to avoid childbirth (and, indeed, for those women who wanted sex on the same terms as men), these developments gave them sexual freedom -- and opportunities to secure education, employment, and family on terms of their choosing. For those women, however, who are ready to have children at younger ages or who are less able to secure effective contraception, marriage is harder to come by and poorer women have become more likely to have children on their own.

When the pill first came on the market, rich women and poor women wanted about the same number of children, but women below the poverty line had twice as many unintended pregnancies. The disparities are greater today. Half of all pregnancies remain unintended, but the rates for women below the poverty line are three and half times greater than for those above 200% of the poverty line. The pill introduced a revolution, but not everyone has shared in its benefits. The 2010 health care legislation, which expands health care coverage, should also ensure that more women receive access to family planning. The irony of Congressman Stupak's efforts to hold the legislation hostage to anti-abortion restrictions is that his proposals are unlikely to change the outcome of a single pregnancy (since no federal funds will be available for abortion in any event), while the health care bill he tried to derail, by enhancing contraceptive access, could prevent dramatically more. The culture wars, as a cynical effort to manipulate the symbols of cultural division for the political benefit of individual legislators, continue.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.