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Birth Control Builds The Middle Class

The Pill -- in this case, ortho tricyclen

Polls are a snapshot of a group of people at a given moment. Studies can paint a picture of that group over long periods of time. The National Longitudinal Survey of Young Women, which began in 1968, has studied the impact of the availability of artificial birth control on women. The 4,300 women who were involved in the survey were born between 1943 and 1954. They were between six and seventeen years old when The Pill was approved for use in America. Part of the survey chronicled the differences in women’s lives because some state approved the pill for 18-year-olds while others approved it for 21-year-olds.

What they found in the broad term was that The Pill changed the world for women.

Take a small statement from Zsa Zsa Gabor about herself and Elizabeth Taylor and their shared history of multiple marriages. She said that for women of their age, the only acceptable way to have sex was to get married. Very truthful statement. Women weren’t supposed to like sex, but if they did, the only way they could safely have sex was to get married….until The Pill. After that, a woman could choose to wait for marriage, and after marriage, wait for children. It not only “liberated” women from having to marry the first guy they met who wanted to married and seemed like a decent provider, it allowed women to choose to go to college for some reason other than to snag a good provider. It allowed women the time to build a career. And it pulled women out of poverty.

When The Pill premiered in 1960, women earned 60.7% of what men did. The ratio got worse, bottoming out in 1966 at 57.6%. Today, it is 77%. It is still not equal, but it is an 20% narrowing of the gender pay gap. The National Bureau of Economic Research credits The Pill with most of that narrowing, particularly after all states allowed The Pill for women as young as 18. The gender pay gap shrank as those in the survey became adults. It is a clear statistical correlation. In 1966, the study group was twelve to twenty-three years old. They were making choices about education or recently out of college and building careers. Knowing that they were not slaves to childbearing was having an impact on their choices. That freedom of choice resonated throughout their lives. Today, those women are 69 to 58 years old. They are retired or close to retirement. They have had 52 years of reproductive freedom and the educational and career freedom that created.

Republican candidate Rick Santorum abuses the statistics showing a relationship between marriage and income. Marriage does not guarantee a middle-class income, as he insists. A middle-class income improves the chances that a marriage will be successful. We long ago left a world where a man could earn enough for his little woman to stay home and raise the kiddies. The better a wife’s chances of gaining and maintaining a good income, the greater the chances of a stable family, and controlling childbearing is essential to that equation. However, that 77% of earning capacity has caused a different gap. Men have been laid off more frequently in this recession economy than women. It is one way that companies can save money – retain the lower-earning employees.

One thing we have learned the hard way about conservatives is that they are fairly blind when it comes to seeing which end is the cart and which is the horse. They see marriage=middle class. We see middle marriage. They see birth control=sinful recreational sex. We do too, but we also see birth control=better life choices.

While we debate birth control as a health issue, let’s make sure we have the right perspective on birth control as an economic issue. One of my husband’s ancestors buried 10 of her 19 children before they were a year old. In the past, this was one reason families had a lot of children. Infant mortality was very high. As medicine and medical care became more available, infant mortality dropped. In those places where the birth rate did not concurrently fall, in Latin America for instance, the consequence was widespread poverty. It is not possible for a family to rise out of poverty if the parents are producing a new mouth to feed every year.

Birth control helps build middle class families, and we now have a study to prove it.




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One Response to Birth Control Builds The Middle Class

  1. Sarah Hunt

    March 30, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Thanks for publishing this article, Linda. These days it seems like we’ve reverted at least 50 years. I can’t believe the arguments we’ve been hearing lately.

    The pill, and other types of birth control, have probably also helped middle class families stay middle class because they don’t have so many children (as you allude to). Children, especially smart ones who go to college, are darn expensive nowadays.