The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No Abortion Means Poor States Will Get Poorer

Placeholder while article actions load

Economic disparity has always been a feature of the U.S. economy, not only among households, but among regions. For the last few hundred years the North was the center of industrialization, and then later for high-skill services like finance and technology, as well. The South had less wealth and opportunity.

In more recent years, though, the two regions’ fortunes have been converging. Favorable tax treatment, better climates and cheaper housing meant many high-growth industries and their talent were moving south. This trend will probably continue, but the economic convergence faces a setback if the Roe v. Wade decision is overturned.

America without Roe means abortion access will be decided by state governments. Thirteen states have automatic clauses to make abortion illegal when the court overturns Roe, and most of the residents of those states have incomes lower than the national average. Some richer northeastern and coastal states have already codified the right to abortion. Other states will probably feel out some middle ground and place some restrictions on who can get an abortion and under what circumstances.

So abortion will still be legal in most states, but it will certainly be harder to get one in many places and this will mean fewer abortions. That raises many political, legal and moral issues that don’t have easy answers.  But one thing is certain — it will have an economic impact since it affects low-income women most.

The typical abortion recipient is in her 20s, single, already has at least one child and is living below the poverty line. A common perception is that most abortion recipients are teenagers, but survey data from 2008 to 2014 estimates only 12% were between the age of 15 and 19 — the same percentage as women over 35 who sought the procedure. Nearly 60% were in their 20s, 55% were not married or living with a partner, 49.4% live below the poverty line, and 59% already had at least one child.

Abortion access reduces the odds a young woman will have an unwanted child early in her life, which are the crucial years that set her economic trajectory. In a review of data collected over the decades after changes in abortion laws in the 1970s, economists found that access to abortion reduced the odds of dropping out of school, being unmarried and living in poverty — especially among Black women.

Restricting abortion not only means more poverty and less education for mothers, it means the same for the children they may already have or will have in the future.  Access to abortion is associated with more children going to college and not growing up reliant on public assistance. 

True, these studies are based on data from decades ago and the world is a little different now. There are better contraceptives available today and that may be one reason why the number of unintended pregnancies was trending down, especially among teenagers. But odds are some of the effects on poverty and education will endure because having children without the financial means to raise them is never easy.

The impact may be even more profound today since low-income women with children, the ones most likely to get an abortion, are also the ones who will have the hardest time traveling to another state for the procedure as access is constricted. That means the poorest women in the poorest states will be most affected and more likely to stay in poverty.

Meanwhile the states more likely to outlaw abortion, such as Texas, Utah, South Dakota and Tennessee, are also the ones experiencing the most income growth. Perhaps the greater economic opportunity will mean fewer unintended pregnancies, since as people get richer the odds of having a child when young decreases.

But a more likely outcome will be that restricting abortion access will mean poorer residents will have less control over their economic lives, will be less able to take advantage of the growth happening around them, and will fall further behind. And that means more inequality and less prosperity in states that were finally on track to catch up.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• How Overturning Roe Would Harm Women’s Health: Bloomberg Opinion

• The Murky Politics of Overturning Roe: Jonathan Bernstein

• Abortion Case Leak Shows Supreme Court Is Broken: Noah Feldman

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Allison Schrager is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk.”

More stories like this are available on

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.