America's Fertility Class Divide: New Numbers Reveal a Problem

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Sept. 26 2011 4:14 PM

Knocked Up and Knocked Down

Why America's widening fertility class divide is a problem.

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This lack of support makes for not a little unpleasantness in the lives of working parents. Consider the harried existence of professional parents, as described by the Center for Work-Life Policy report:

They are working longer and harder, shouldering new responsibilities for aging parents, and striving overtime to provide their children with all that they, in many cases, had lacked—a smooth path of success and both parents by their side. The costs are steep and include anxiety and exhaustion.

If this is the job description, it's easy to see why women would skip the interview.

At the same time, there's little question why poorer women are having more unintended pregnancies. Only about 40 percent of women who needed publicly funded family planning services between 2000 and 2008 got them, according to the Guttmacher Institute. During that same period, as employment levels and the number of employers offering health insurance went down, the number of women who needed these services increased by more than 1 million.

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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.

Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at Demos and the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation. Follow her on Twitter or email her at fastlerner@gmail.com.

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