How Giving Women Access To Affordable Birth Control Ends Up Benefiting The Economy Decades Later

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Family planning services provide a lot of short-term benefits for women, like giving them the economic freedom to put off supporting a child while they’re finishing school or holding down a job. And according to a new analysis, expanding access to birth control also has positive long-term effects that become evident decades down the line, like encouraging higher family incomes and greater college completion rates.

In a new working paper, University of Michigan economist Martha Bailey examines several policies that expanded women’s access to contraception in the 1950s and 1960s. She reports that giving those women the ability to plan their families actually ended up benefiting their future children. In fact, “individuals’ access to contraceptives increased their children’s college completion, labor force participation, wages, and family incomes decades later.”

Before a 1965 Supreme Court case undid the policy, some states banned women from purchasing the pill. Bailey compared the data for the children born between 1958 and 1965, contrasting the states that allowed contraceptives with the states that outlawed them. She found that the children born in areas with “higher legal or financial access to the birth control pill” had a two percent to seven percent higher chance of finishing college. Better access to birth control was also associated with a two percent to three percent increase in family income for those kids once they became adults.

Why is that? Bailey suggests it’s because allowing parents to control family size ensures that they can invest the appropriate amount of time and money into each child that they end up having. Their resources aren’t stretched too thin. Plus, without the burden of needing to support additional children that they can’t afford, parents are also freed up to get more education and work experience, driving up their earning potential over their lifetimes.

Ultimately, the paper concludes, providing funding for family planning programs — specifically, Title X clinics that provide low-income women with affordable access to contraceptive care — is a cost-effective way to invest in the long-term economy. It’s arguably cheaper than paying for some of the other government programs that intend to encourage Americans to pursue higher education, like Upward Bound.

The economic case for expanding access to birth control isn’t a new argument. Previous research has also found that family planning programs ultimately save taxpayers money, since they help avert unintended births and abortions. A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute estimated that Title X clinics helped save the government $10.5 billion in 2010.

Bailey points out that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle used to frame their support for contraceptive services in this way. “Much of the current debate surrounding family planning focuses on women’s reproductive rights and health. In the 1960s, however, proponents of these programs often emphasized their links to the economy,” she writes. “Both President Lyndon Johnson and President Nixon stressed how family planning programs would promote the opportunities of children and families and thus drive economic growth.”

But the Republican Party’s recent policies have signaled a departure from this position. Even though Obamacare took a big step forward to expand women’s contraceptive access by requiring insurance plans to cover birth control without charging a co-pay, conservatives have been fighting against this provision every step of the way. Most recently, Republicans have used the ongoing negotiations over the current government shutdown as an opportunity to suggest proposals to weaken that provision.