Family Planning Programs Have Effectively Reduced Child Poverty

Remember the 1960s? It was a decade so radical that even the President of the United States could publically declare that public funding of contraceptives would increase economic prosperity. Lyndon Johnson went so far as to say “[L]ess than five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.”

I have no idea how the president came to estimate those figures, but new research suggests that public spending on contraceptives in that era significantly reduced the number children born into poverty.

University of Michigan economist Martha Bailey has taken advantage of the county-by-county variation in public spending on family planning between 1964 and 1973 and estimated that these programs (adopted in just one fifth of all counties) resulted in 1.8 million fewer births over just 10 years.

The biggest reduction in births was in children who would have been born into low-income households. Federal dollars on family planning reduced childbearing of low-income women by between 19 to 30 percent and closed the gap in the number of births between poor and not-poor women between half and three-quarters of its 1965 level.

Each birth averted, according to Bailey, cost the government $2,700 in family planning dollars, but you have to imagine that was money well spent taking into consideration the cost of direct social spending for children living in poverty.

Was Lyndon Johnson correct in his prediction that public spending on contraceptives had the power to fuel economic growth? That is a question that still remains to be answered, but given that children born to poorer women tend to be less productive workers, suffer poorer health over their lifetimes, have low educational achievement and are more likely to participate in criminal behavior (which itself reduces economic growth) it seems likely that the investment in family planning did contribute to GDP growth in subsequent decades.

I wonder how much it would cost today to reduce the unintended pregnancy rate in the U.S. – currently estimated at over three million pregnancies a year – as much as these programs did in the 1960s and 1970s. The cost of contraceptives has fallen significantly in the intervening decades, suggesting that it would be relatively inexpensive to achieve that goal.

Strange, though, that despite the economic progress made over the past 50 years so many people would disagree with Richard Nixon’s view that “no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition…we should establish as a national goal the provision of adequate family planning services within the next five years to all those who want them but cannot afford them. This we have the capacity to do.”

For more on unwanted pregnancy and the national economy see Lack of Access to Birth Control Hampers US International Competitiveness.

Reference:

Bailey, Martha (2012). “Reexamining the Impact of U.S. Family Planning Programs on Fertility: Evidence from the War on Poverty and the Early Years of Title X. “ American Economic Journal: Applied Economics Vol. 4(2): pp 62-97.

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