When it comes to baby-making, there are two Americas: Low-income America, where women have high rates of unplanned pregnancy, and high-income America, where women aren’t having kids at all, even if they want them.
You hear about the “haves” versus the “have-nots,” but not so much about the “have-one-or-nones” versus the “have-a-fews.” This, though, is how you might characterize the stark and growing fertility class divide in the United States. Two new studies bring the contrasting reproductive profiles of rich and poor women into sharp relief. One, from the Guttmacher Institute, shows that the rates of unplanned pregnancies and births among poor women now dwarf the fertility rates of wealthier women, and finds that the gap between the two groups has widened significantly over the past five years. The other, by the Center for Work-Life Policy, documents rates of childlessness among corporate professional women that are higher than the childlessness rates of some European countries experiencing fertility crises.
Childlessness has increased across most demographic groups but is still highest among professionals. Indeed, according to an analysis of census data conducted by the Pew Research Center, about one quarter of all women with bachelor’s degrees and higher in the United States wind up childless. (As Pew notes, for women with higher degrees, that number is actually slightly lower than it was in the early 1990s—but it is still very high.) By comparison, in England, which has one of the highest percentages of women without children in the world, 22 percent of all women are childless. According to the new Center for Work-Life Policy study, 43 percent of the women in their sample of corporate professionals between the ages of 33 and 46 were childless. The rate of childlessness among the Asian American professional women in the study was a staggering 53 percent.
As someone who is fairly agnostic about the baby-having thing, the language in the Slate article rubs me the wrong way — women who don’t have kids aren’t “childless,” exactly, any more than I’m “dogless” or “Mercedesless.” But that aside, the statistics are interesting. Surely there are women in both groups who made their choices freely — women who are low-income and have multiple children, and women who are high-income and have none. But as much as feminists hammer on the “choice” ideal, reproductive choice in the United States isn’t free. If you can’t access contraceptives, abortion, health care or sexual health information, you can’t make an entirely free choice to plan the number and spacing of your children. If you don’t have decent parental leave policies, if you’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into your education in order to place yourself on a particular career path, and if having a child might set that career back and cause significant professional and financial strain, you can’t make an entirely free choice to have a child (or multiple children).
These issues are also fraught with historical baggage. When I see an article that seems to say “poor women have having too many babies and rich women aren’t having enough,” I bristle, because there’s a long history in the United States and around the world of trying to control fertility from both angles — making sure the “wrong” kind of women don’t have too many children and that the “right” kind of women do. It’s impossible to read an article like this and take it out of that context. But at the same time, demographic trends can tell us a lot about on-the-ground access and choice. It’s not enough to say, “Well, there’s this fucked up history of poor women, women of color, women with disabilities and other groups being forced or coerced out of childbearing, so the fact that birth rates in poor communities are higher than average? I’m not touching that with a ten-foot pole” or “Well, there’s this fucked up history of wealthier white women being forced or coerced into childbearing, so the fact that birth rates amongst wealthier women are lower than average? Victory!”
Poor women are five times more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy than middle-income or rich women. Poor women are six times more likely to have an unplanned birth. And in a country without universal health care, without childcare for low-income women, without a smoothly-functioning educational system, without full access to abortion and contraception, and without mandatory parental leave, moms — and especially low-income moms– face an uphill battle. The Slate piece concludes aptly:
The fact that our extremes seem to almost magically balance each other out is only part of the reason we’ve failed to recognize these problems. The other part is that we’ve applied a distorted notion of choice to both trends. Certainly many professional women opt out of motherhood because they want to—and because that choice is now less stigmatized than it once was. And many women in all income brackets come to embrace an unexpected pregnancy as a happy accident.
But as much as we’d like to see our decisions about pregnancy and childbirth as straightforward exercises of individual will, or choice, there are clearly larger forces at work here, too. “Whether it’s the lack of services and education you experience because you’re poor or the corporate pressure because you’re successful, the broader society’s organization of work and support completely affects something as personal and intimate as whether you have children,” says Wendy Chavkin, professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia. “These latest numbers show how the macroeconomic trends are lived out in people’s personal lives.”
With growing poverty rates and political attacks on already inadequate family-planning funding threatening to drive the number of unintended pregnancies among poor women even higher, and little effort being made to address the pressures driving other women away from having kids, it’s easy to imagine how these forces could push professionals and poor women further apart. Still, in their own ways, both are struggling with the same problem: an untenable “choice” between children and financial solvency. At this point, it may be the only thing they have in common.