September 27, 2011 — Two recent studies shed light on the "stark and growing fertility class divide" in the U.S., where fertility rates of lower-income women far exceed those of higher-income, more-educated women, Sharon Lerner writes in Slate.
In a study by the Guttmacher Institute, researchers found that rates of unplanned pregnancy and birth among low-income women "dwarf" the fertility rates of higher-income women, a gap that has "widened significantly over the past five years," Lerner explains. Meanwhile, a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy found the percentage of corporate professional women in the U.S. who do not have children is greater than the overall percentage of childless women in some European countries that are experiencing very low fertility.
According to Lerner, "Childlessness has increased across most demographic groups," but is highest among professional women. A Pew Research Center analysis of Census data found that about 25% of all women in the U.S. with bachelor's or higher degrees never have children. The CWLP study found that 43% of women in a sample of professionals ages 33 through 46 did not have children, including 53% of Asian-American women. At the same time, rates of unplanned pregnancy and unplanned birth for low-income women are incredibly high.
Lerner asks, "If our overall fertility rate [in the U.S.] is at replacement level ... does it really matter so much if some women are having more kids ... and some are having fewer?" She argues that it does, noting that unintended pregnancies have negative effects for both women and children. "[T]he very fact of having a child increases a woman's chances of being poor," creating a cycle in which both women and children suffer, she says. Moreover, women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to smoke, drink, go without prenatal care and deliver prematurely. "Their children are less likely to be breastfed and more likely to be neglected and to have various physical and mental health effects," according to Lerner.
She goes on to point out that U.S. policies perpetuate both issues. The "declining fertility of professional women ought to be a sounding alarm ... [that] our policies are unfriendly to parents," Lerner states. "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," Lerner writes.
She concludes, "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" (Lerner, Slate, 9/26).