Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.
What role does the family play in an age of increasing inequality? Two long-term changes determine the result. The first is a shift in family formation strategies. As we wrote in Red Families v. Blue Families in 2010, a new “blue family” value system emerged to prepare young adults for the changes associated with the information economy. Men and women in this system delay family formation until after they reach emotional maturity and financial independence. Adult commitments rest on flexibility and trust, and childbearing is seen as a critical responsibility best undertaken through planning and preparation. We compared this system with a more traditional or “red family” value approach that placed greater emphasis on shepherding sexuality into marriage and socializing young people into adulthood through the acceptance of gendered marital roles.
The second change has been the emergence of family form as a marker of class. The groups with the most stable marriage rates—and the most stable families—are those with more education or more income. Two-thirds of Millennials without a high school education, for example, had a nonmarital child compared to nine percent of those with a college degree or additional education. These family differences correspond to differences in income and wealth and appear to compound them.
A new report from IFS and AEI, The Millennial Success Sequence, beautifully reveals how the life patterns of Millennials illustrate these long-term changes: Millennials who are most likely to achieve economic security "get at least a high school degree, work, and then marry before having any children, in that order." The report found that those with less than a high school education were about five times less likely than those with a bachelor’s or higher degree to be in the middle or top third of the income distribution. Completing education, securing a job, and committing to the right partner in a stable marriage relationship constitutes “a sequence” important to achieving middle-class financial status and providing a stable foundation for family life.
The report makes a compelling case that the “sequence” corresponds with financial and family success and provides a stronger societal foundation than the alternatives. The question is how to get there, and the report recommends various policies relating to strengthening work, education, and marriage. It recognizes that the interaction between economic changes and cultural norms is multi-causal, dynamic, and interactive, and that stable families and stable incomes are deeply interconnected.
We agree with much in the report. Yet we find one part of it surprising, and that part goes to the clash between red and blue family systems we mentioned at the beginning of the post. The right sequence requires postponing childbirth until after completing one’s education, landing a job, and finding the right marriage partner. Much of the benefit, after all, comes not just from being married, but from staying married. Indeed, those who had children, then married, and divorced did worse than parents with children who never married (see chart on page 13 of the report). Yet, the report touts the benefit of marriage without addressing the question of how to avoid childbearing before getting to the right point in the sequence for having children. It advocates marriage promotion without ever mentioning the word “contraception.”
It is thus immensely curious that an otherwise thorough report does not discuss, much less advocate, the most effective weapon in our arsenal for strengthening family stability. The most likely reason is that at the heart of the culture clash we described between blue and red is not the family ideal; it is rather how to get there. Both groups recognize that education and employment contribute to stable families and the report includes consensus-based proposals to strengthen the pathways from education into good jobs. Where the two groups differ, however, is with respect to attitudes towards sex.
Blue is a modernist system that leaves sexual activity to individual choice, but embraces contraceptive use as morally compelled; pregnancy is too serious a matter to be left to chance or to be treated as the inevitable consequence of sexual activity. Consequently, it views effective birth control use, no less than employment or education, as a system that depends on infrastructure. Today, doctors advise teens to be on the pill soon after puberty as a way to control acne or menstrual cramps. According to the Guttmacher Institute, over 50% of all women taking the pill do so at least in part for reasons unrelated to sexual activity, with one-third of teens reporting that they do so exclusively for such reasons. Several studies have shown that long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) substantially affect unintended pregnancy and abortion rates. For example, the Colorado Family Planning Initiative found that expanding access to LARCs decreased births to disadvantaged teens by 27% and decreased abortions within the same population by 34% between 2009 and 2011. For the best-off families, contraception should thus become a system integrated into routine medical care that separates the beginning of birth control use from sex.
In our view, producing the sequence requires a new strategy for different times. As stable jobs have become harder to come by, the average age of marriage and first birth have risen. While, in recent years, there has been a decline in teen sex, the period between the beginning of sexual activity and the age of first birth has increased considerably more than any delay in the initiation of sexual activity. For those with access to health care and regular check-ups, the result is a system that makes contraceptive use routine: 99% of sexually active women will use birth control at some time in their lives.
While all forms of contraception carry risks, contraception is dramatically safer than pregnancy. Nonetheless, the most effective types of contraception—long acting hormonals and IUDs—require access to a doctor and individual counseling. Some women, for example, need to be on hormonals to treat medical conditions unrelated to pregnancy, while other women need to avoid hormonals altogether, and still, others may need to use different combinations of hormonal agents.
For all women who do not take a permanent vow of abstinence, managing reproduction is a lifelong process. Few married women are prepared to deal with an unlimited number of children, and spacing children is important to the health of women and children. Yet, access to this reproductive health system varies widely by class and region. In the period between 1981 and 2008, unintended pregnancies rose in the United States and accounted for half of all pregnancies—a rate much higher than in most of the rest of the developed world. The aggregate figures, however, cloak substantial differences among different groups. For the wealthiest, the unintended pregnancy rate fell by half, while it increased substantially for the poorest Americans. Since, the Great Recession, however, unintended pregnancies have fallen most sharply for the poorest Americans, and the result appears to be primarily due to increased contraceptive use. With the decline, the percentage of overall births within marriage has increased for the first time in years; unplanned pregnancies, especially those that occur to poorer and younger women, contribute to a particularly high percentage of the births outside of the success sequence.
Marriage (particularly marriage following, rather than preceding, childbirth) is not a panacea. In contrast, postponing childbirth, having children farther apart, and choosing one’s partner carefully have benefits for children even if the parents do not marry. Agreement that the sequence works should lead to pragmatic consideration of all of the interventions that lead to success.
June Carbone is the Robina Chair of Law, Science, and Technology at the University of Minnesota Law School. Naomi Cahn is the Harold H. Greene Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School.