Why are fertility rates higher among lower-income American women?

(Inspired by this Slate article, arguing that the sharp divide between fertility of middle-class and poor American women will work to further entrench class differences from generation to generation: America's Fertility Class Divide: What new numbers from the Center for Work-Life Policy and the Guttmacher Institute reveal.)

Why do poorer women, all else being equal, tend to have more unplanned pregnancies than middle-class ones? The above-linked article cites education and access to family planning services as a major factor, and this seems reasonable at first glance. But - well, condoms are cheap, and I can’t recall the last time I saw even a convenience store that doesn’t sell them. (Well, I don’t think the store on the first floor of my office building does - but then, it’s meant to cater to the needs of working drones, who - presumably - can do without from nine to five). I suppose that the very, very poorest women might be unable to afford even a few bucks for condoms - but that seems like it would have be an extreme case even in the lower classes. Further, there are plenty of services (especially in cities) where one can pick up condoms for free, at will, no paperwork needed. Heck, the Presbyterian church a block from my apartment does this. Thanks, Presbyterians!

And as for education: “Condoms prevent pregancy and most disease transmission.” Or, slightly more nuanced: “If properly used, condoms are very, very likely to prevent pregancy and transmission of most STDs.” That isn’t a difficult message to pick up. Is there really a substantial reservoir of Americans who don’t know this? And if not, what in Ford’s name do they think condoms are for?

So, what’s going on here? Is greater religiousity amonst the lower classes inhibiting condom use (but not sexual activity)? Are lower-class women likelier to be in coercive relationships, and thus unable to insist on condom use? Or is it just that the price of condoms really is prohibitive for a very large demographic?

(Note: Posters offering racist explanations shall be fired. Out of a cannon. Into the Sun.)

I think it’s just a matter of poor decision making. For all the flak the religious right gets for abstinence only education, within the halls of public High Schools birth control matters are hammered into teenager’s heads repeatedly.

Do you know what else is? The dangers of driving drunk, but young adults still drive drunk. I think that within the socioeconomic lower class, there just isn’t typically a strong enough parental influence to really beat home the importance of not getting pregnant young, of not driving drunk and etc.

I think for a lot of people they know that sex creates children, but they mistakenly believe that because any single incident of sexual intercourse is unlikely to produce a pregnancy that they can essentially do it as often as they want with no protection and “luck out.” Or they just don’t care, or they want kids. I’ve known many young women from that socioeconomic strata who have deliberately gotten pregnant to “lock down” a guy.

For many poor women having a baby is seen is something they can accomplish in life (why this is seen as an accomplishment is the heart of the problem) versus higher education or financial stability.

Higher education and financial stability also take a good chunk of time that your not spending pregnant. If your going to college, and then law school and then starting your career, your usually postponing kids until your close to thirty, which leaves a limited number of years left to start churning out young ones. And even after you start having kids, if you want to return to work, the more kids you have the more difficult thats going to be.

I think its sort of weird that these discussions usually focus on why poor people have more kids, rather then why rich people have so few. I suspect the birthrate of poor american woman is a lot closer to the historical and global average then that of their more wealthy peers.

That doesn’t really address unplanned pregnancies, which is what the OP is asking about.

I pretty much agree that it has to do with poor decision making. Are people with low income more likely to be involved with crime? To use drugs? To drop out of school? They’re not uninformed. Making bad choices is part of their culture.

I’ve always figured this is simple: if you have prospects in life, things you want to do and have reason to believe that you can in fact do, things that an unplanned kid would scupper, then you take serious care to make bloody sure you don’t have an unplanned kid. I took that kind of serious care because I wanted to finish college, I wanted to finish my professional training, I wanted to get solidly on the ladder with my career, etc etc etc. A kid would have put a big dent in all those plans.

If you believe that your prospects are basically ‘crappy life without kid’ or ‘identical crappy life with kid’, then why would you bother being super-careful? What have you got to lose?

Yeah, it’s possible to prevent 99% of unplanned pregnancies, but you have to take care. You have to make sure that you take the pill at the right time every day, that you use some other form of protection if you’ve had the stomach flu or something, that if you’re using condoms you never get carried away and think ‘What the hell, just this once…’ If the stakes are high, then of course you do it. But if the stakes are so low (from your perspective) that they’re almost imperceptible, why would you put in the effort?

This makes a lot of sense. But, if you’ll indulge me by keeping your low-socioeconomic-class-hat on a moment longer: Aren’t the stakes actually fairly high? I mean, if you get pregnant, your choices are abortion (often expensive, especially if you don’t find out until later in pregnancy), adoption of some sort (which still requires painful and dangerous childbirth) or actually raising a tiny helpless person - which is such an expensive proposition it gives middle-class professionals pause, let alone hypothetical-lower-class you.

Some notions:

Condoms are less reliable than hormonal birth control and their use depends on the man in the relationship being willing to use them. Lots of men consider birth control not their problem and condoms to be unpleasant, so depending on condoms entirely is problematic. But hormonal methods cost more and require doctor visits, and there are side effects that may require doctor tinkering that is also expensive (if you have to keep going back to the doctor, taking time off and paying out of pocket).

And then, as others have mentioned, there are the downsides of unplanned pregnancies. Women with educational or career goals will perceive a bigger downside.

I don’t think poor American women are more fertile than middle class or wealthy American women. I think middle class or wealthy Americans have many more options available to them to prevent unwanted or unexpected babies.

I would bet most middle class and higher people don’t just use a single form of birth control. Many of my friends and I had talked about how not only did/do we use condoms/diaphrams/etc. but we were also on the pill or other alternate form of BC because we had the money to pay for both.

For those of us who still ended up with surprise babies (mine will be here in a few weeks) we often have the option of having a tubal or having a spouse have a vasectomy to prevent surprise babies from happening again. My doctor is literally going to remove my child and then immediately go in and tie my tubes because we do NOT want to do this again and my insurance is happy to pay for it. If you are scraping together money to pay out of pocket for the birth because you don’t have health insurance you certainly aren’t going to find the money to cover a permanent fix so this doesn’t happen again.

Even more of an issue is that abortion is much more easily available to middle class and higher women. If you have enough money or the right health insurance you can easily afford to choose to abort a baby you aren’t ready or able to care for unlike someone who may need a month or more to scrape together the money for an abortion.

It isn’t that poverty makes you more fertile. Poverty simply takes away many of your choices so preventing unwanted children in the future is much more difficult.

Part of of not uniformed includes knowing that sex without birth control usually leads to a pregnancy. Many of the unplanned pregnancies the OP was referring to were unplanned because a woman made no overt attempt to avoid pregnancy. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing how someone gets pregnant and how to avoid it or even not having access to birth control.

I’m inclined to agree to a point. Being preggers does a number on your hormones and (younger) women are more likely to think, “Now I have my man forever” or some such romanticized nonsense.

I also think that self-esteem plays a part. If you feel good about yourself and your body and your life, you are less likely to make stupid decisions.

Also, how about access to abortion? Middle and upper class women fool around, too – we just may be more likely to drop $600 on a fetus removal.

I’m going with bad decision making, compounded by everything being a bit more difficult when you’re poor. Note that obesity is more of a problem for poorer people, too. I’m thinking that isn’t a coincidence.

I believe the education and access argument that the article mentions.

One former coworker asked me (aware that I’ve never had a kid and that this was intentional) how it was that I managed to never get pregnant. This with me being then-late-30s and sexually active pretty much continuously since college. She’d been poor growing up, became a teenage mom, and was still struggling financially.

Another one said she’d gotten married pretty much right out of high school, was raised Catholic, grew up poor, and married a Catholic guy. She asked him about family planning, and he said he’d take care of that. Well, he planned on having a family, ASAP. No contraception, no withdrawal “method,” no cycle charting. (Her family was fine with that, and are still mad that she woke up and divorced him, even though he abused her and cheated on her.)

If you’re poor, your birth control option is probably just condoms, unless you’re lucky enough to have access to sliding-scale health care, smart enough to seek it out, lucky enough to have it nearby, and brave enough to walk in if it’s a Planned Parenthood and you’re worried about someone you know finding out you’re entering “an abortion clinic” or braving any protesters.

If you use condoms, you have to get your guy to agree to use them. Every time. From the start of the sex act. You have to disbelieve the Vatican’s disinformation about condoms not really working (see: previous campaigns in Africa). You have to believe they don’t break all the time. If they do break, you have to figure out why and how to fix the situation (bad fit, use lube, trim your nails, bigger condoms). You also have to budget in the extra cost per week when you might be able to get some nicer meat for dinners with that money.

You have to believe you’re maybe that fertile. You have to believe that putting off having a baby is something that people do, and do intentionally, with planned effort.

To some extent, it is a mixture of cause and effect. Being a teenaged, unmarried mother is a fast track to being low income for life.

So it is not always the higher income ones who get pregnant less, it is those who get pregnant less and later who wind up higher income.


I say this having gone through the situation personally–below a certain income threshold, you can have a kid and raise it for six years without spending very much money at all. (I’m tempted to say you don’t have to spend any money at all but I’ll hedge on that.)

Of course money is not the only resource necessary for kid raising, but anyway, as far as money is concerned, it’s not a concern. If you make below a certain amount.

Also if you look at the fertility rates by ethnic group, you will notice that only group with a fertility rate above the replacement rate is Hispanics. That by itself will lower the average income.

Of course, if you ask the question, “Why aren’t self-absorbed yuppies having kids?”, the question answers itself. College graduates marry each other and turn into DINKs.

Sure, but those stakes are across the board. Every unplanned pregnancy comes with those. For the girl/woman who’s got prospects, you take all the stuff you listed and add the loss of prospects on top.

(I also think that, proportionally, having a baby may well feel equally expensive to middle-class professionals and to people from lower socioeconomic classes - because your ideas about what a kid needs are shaped by your socioeconomic context. If you’re upper-middle-class and you want your kid to have a house with a big garden and private school and music lessons and trips to various countries, that kid will probably take up the same proportion of your income as the lower-working-class kid whose parents feel he needs food, clothes, a handful of books and a bike.)

And when you get right down to it, money isn’t necessarily the big issue. For me, even when I was young and broke, the expense of having a baby wasn’t what made me so careful. Frankly, I barely even thought about it; I took it for granted (yeah, I said I was young) that somehow, I’d always find a way to put food on the table. But the idea of giving up the training and the career that I wanted so passionately…that was more than enough to make me careful.

While the lower end of the economic spectrum includes a lot of poor decision makers, leading to unplanned pregnancies, many of these young women are making a deliberate decision to have children. It leads to economic assistance from the state, family, friends, and charities. It also absolves the mother’s of responsibility for their actions because anything can be justified under the “I’m a single mother” rubric. They also believe the child will create a permanent bond with the father. And the men often behave in exactly the same way. Someone will keep a roof over the mother’s head, giving him a place he can crash. And her family will help him find work, or pay bail, so their grandchild’s father can make a living and stay out of jail (neither of which he is likely to do). If you lack skills and opportunity, but have working reproductive organs, it’s a rational (but regressive) decision.

Four people attributing it to poor decision making.

I’m sure if we try hard enough we can find a way to excuse this behaviour and make it society’s fault.

Peer pressure?
MTV and that 16 and Pregnant show?
Corporations looking to maximize profits?
I see only one person has blamed the religious right.