The Costs to Society and Children of Unintended Pregnancy

by Barbara Ray

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Nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, and nearly half of all births to unmarried twenty-something women are unintended. While some of these “woops” pregnancies occur within marriage, a high share are to cohabiting couples or single women in precarious situations.

A 2011 study by scholars at the Brookings Institution, Center on Children and Families, finds that these unplanned pregnancies cost taxpayers about $12 billion annually in medical care provided to these women and their babies up to age 1. They also estimate that the country could save about half of this amount if all unintended pregnancies could be prevented.

Put another way:

“If all unintended pregnancies were prevented, the resulting savings on medical spending alone would equal more than three quarters of the federal FY 2010 appropriation for the Head Start and Early Head Start programs and would be roughly equivalent to the amount that the federal government spends each year on the Child Care and Development Fund.”

As they also note, unintended pregnancies are more common among those who are often the most vulnerable, including those with the fewest resources and among the youngest women. “Among women who are teenaged, unmarried, or low-income, the proportion of pregnancies that are unintended exceeds 60 percent.”

Often these pregnancies tip the young family into poverty and keep them there. Poverty has a long reach. The children of these single mothers are much more likely to do poorly in school, hold low-wage jobs as adults, be at higher risk for becoming ensnared in the criminal justice system, and they are more likely themselves to become single parents.

All of these outcomes come with a price tag to society in higher crime, less productivity, and other costs. Researchers have quantified the costs of persistent childhood poverty at nearly 4% of GDP, or about $500 billion per year.

Many women are sliding into pregnancy; not intentionally becoming pregnant but not exactly taking strong precautions either. As the Knot Yet report finds, about half of all births to unmarried twenty-something women are unintended, and the rate of such pregnancies is dramatically higher among women with less education, as is their ambivalence about becoming pregnant.

Even among those who said it was important to avoid pregnancy at the moment, more than one-third went on to say they would be happy if they got pregnant, and the majority of this group was those with the least education.

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This is apparent in the rates of birth control use (click on figure to make it larger). Among women with less than a high school degree, only 19% of never-married young women were using birth control “all the time” with their current or last sexual partner. Among college graduates, the rate jumps to 55%. (Even 55% is amazingly low).

Children are important to women, and when the prospects for a “good” marriage or high earnings seem far out of reach, many women figure, what am I waiting for? Yet the costs to society and to their children in higher risks for poverty and all its associated problems are too high. Society must both work harder to instill the message that having children when you’re not yet financially or emotionally ready is a huge risk to the child’s future well-being, and to support these children after they’re born to ensure that they do not fall into a poverty trap for another generation—because those costs are equally high.