NEW YORK― While young women of the baby-boom generation saw rapid progress in terms of economic equality, health and overall well-being compared to their mothers, that trend has started to reverse for young millennial women, according to a new study by the Population Reference Bureau.
American women under 35 are more likely than the generation before them to be incarcerated, live in poverty, commit suicide or die from pregnancy-related causes and less likely to hold high-paying jobs in STEM fields, according to the report, which compared 14 key indicators of socioeconomic progress and well-being. While young women of the baby-boom generation saw a 66 percent gain in overall well-being compared to their World War II-era mothers, Generation X experienced only a 2 percent gain, and well-being for young women today has actually declined 1 percent.
“It looks like Millennial women’s progress has stalled and slightly reversed relative to their mothers’ and their grandmothers’ generations,” said Mark Mather, an author of the study.
Threats to women’s lives appear to be on the rise. The maternal mortality rate for Millennial women has more than doubled since the baby-boom generation, from 7.5 deaths per 100,000 live births to 19.2, despite many advances in science and medicine and a decreasing maternal death rate worldwide. The suicide rate for women ― particularly white and American Indian women ― has increased by 43 percent over the past decade. And while women are still less likely to overdose on drugs than men, the overdose rate for women has more than quadrupled since 1999 after decades of stasis.
Some of these issues are directly related to economics ― the poverty rate among young women has spiked 37 percent in the last 15 years, making it more difficult for some women to access the health care they need. (Women of color and unmarried women are especially likely to be poor.) But the PRB report also attributes the shocking increase in maternal deaths to a wave of state laws restricting access to abortion and shutting down women’s health care clinics. In Texas, for instance, maternal deaths doubled from 2010 to 2012 as the state legislature slashed family-planning funding, passed a slew of abortion restrictions that forced clinics to close, and defunded Planned Parenthood.
“During the 1970s, as abortion policies were liberalized, maternal mortality rates fell dramatically,” the report says. “In recent years, the maternal mortality rate rose as federal and state policies began restricting access to reproductive health services. In addition, improvements in fetal and infant care, designed to reduce infant mortality and improve child health, have not been paralleled by—and have sometimes come at the expense of—care for women in the postpartum period.”
President Donald Trump’s administration is aiming to continue this trend, reversing an Obama-era rule that guaranteed contraception access to working women while pushing a budget that defunds Planned Parenthood and slashes safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps. And women are deeply underrepresented in Congress and the White House, which gives them less of a say in the policies that most affect their lives.
Of course, the news is not all bad: the teen birth rate dropped to a historic low in 2017, thanks in part to federal investments in family planning and increased access to birth control under the Obama administration. And the share of young women ages 25 to 29 with a bachelor’s degree has exceeded that of men since 1991, although that still has not translated to equal representation in politics or equal pay. The gender wage gap has narrowed from generation to generation, but women still earn only 83 cents for every dollar men earn, on average.
“While some measures are improving, overall the index paints a picture of lost momentum,” said Beth Jarosz, an author of the report. “Too many women lack the resources and supportive environments they need to live healthier lives and achieve their full potential.”
The PRB report has some blind spots: There is no way to tell how specific demographics, like LGBTQ women or African-American women, are faring compared to their own mothers, because many of those statistics weren’t disaggregated by race/ethnicity and other factors in previous decades. But the analysis offers a starting point for the country to identify and address what’s stalling women’s progress.
“By quantifying trends and patterns in women’s well-being,” the authors conclude in the report, “we can help dispel myths, stereotypes, and false assumptions about women in U.S. society—and identify potential strategies to improve women’s lives.”