For more than 40 years, the debate over family values has divided not just the left and the right but also the women’s movement, which has been criticized (fairly or not) for driving a wedge between an affluent elite, focused on abortion rights and liberating careers, and a broader socioeconomic swath of women with more-traditional views of family and female roles. By now, however, the domestic landscape has shifted. Top earners and college-degree holders bequeath their children the benefits of conventional nuclear households. Meanwhile single parenthood (which prevails in nearly a third of all families in the United States) is concentrated among lower-income, less-educated Americans, whose marriage rates have plummeted. The time may be ripe for a new rapprochement on intentional parenting. You won’t find a more rhetorically agile feminist than Pollitt or a clearer-eyed analyst of family and poverty than Sawhill to serve as guides in charting a new way forward.
Sawhill doesn’t mince words about the high price children pay for the decline of marriage, which has overtaken divorce as the main engine of single parenthood. (She doesn’t have much good to say about divorce either, citing plenty of evidence that kids generally don’t fare so well in the face of the instability that is likely to ensue.) But as she briskly acknowledges in her introduction, it’s “wishful thinking” to try to bring marriage back. Instead, she aims to boost children’s prospects by different, bracingly down-to-earth means: converting single parents from “drifters” into “planners.” Drifters slide into having children. Planners make a conscious choice. Sawhill has good reason to think this can make a real difference in sparing kids the worst effects of what researchers call “the family-go-round.” Here’s one bit of evidence from the sorry annals of family unhappiness: children who experience the death of a parent—a random event—are better off than those who weather ruptured adult relationships, which may result from “the same underlying conditions, attitudes, behaviors” that make life hard for kids.
So what distinguishes planners from drifters? All kinds of complicated, intangible factors, and one basic, concrete variable: reliance on long-acting birth control. This is Sawhill’s practical revelation. Two forms of contraception, by knocking out the need for short-term planning, have unmatched power to transform family trajectories. They are the IUD (intrauterine device, available in either progesterone-releasing or copper form) and the implant, a matchstick-size, hormone-injecting rod inserted beneath the skin of a woman’s upper arm. Once in place, both methods do the job for years. No prescription to refill, no shot to get, no device to put in or on (and little risk, with current IUDs, of pelvic infection or septic miscarriage, problems with the Dalkon Shield back in the 1970s).
Among contraceptives, IUDs and implants are uniquely “forgiving of human frailty,” Sawhill notes. As a result, they “have been found, in practice, to be about forty times more effective than condoms and twenty times more effective than the pill at reducing the incidence of unplanned pregnancies.” If you’re stunned by those statistics, so was I: I had assumed I knew the deal—that condoms aren’t as good as the pill, which is in turn not quite as good as the IUD, but that each method works most of the time. Wrong, Sawhill reveals, according to the only measurement that matters—a method’s effectiveness based on typical use over time. A chart accompanying an op‑ed she wrote for The New York Times compared outcomes over the course of 10 years, which show that more than eight out of 10 women who rely on condoms to avoid childbearing will find themselves pregnant. So will more than six out of 10 who use the pill. Only two of 100 women with a hormonal IUD, and eight of 100 with the copper version, will get pregnant. The rate is one in 100 for implants.