If you want to increase graduation rates, discourage people from going on welfare and reduce government spending, you should support family planning services, argues Post columnist Catherine Rampell. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Pope Francis’s visit has brought renewed attention to some of our nation’s toughest economic challenges: inequality, poverty and income (im)mobility. These are pressing issues that leaders of both political parties say they want to tackle, but they disagree on useful, or even acceptable, policy tools.

I have a humble suggestion for an antipoverty policy that, if framed correctly, could appeal to both left and right (though probably not Francis).

That policy: better access to contraception.

In a sense it’s unfortunate that contraception – forget the more divisive issue of abortion – has been primarily framed as an issue about feminism, sexual liberation and other flashpoints in the culture wars.

Yes, it’s partly about those things. But giving low-income women more control over their own fertility also promotes economic security, educational attainment, income mobility and more stable environments for American children. Not to mention deficit reduction (two-thirds of unplanned births are paid for by public insurance programs, which is why government spending on family planning has a high return on investment ); and abortion reduction (40 percent of unplanned pregnancies end in abortion).

Protesters on both sides of the birth control issue demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Today there are huge and widening class gaps in rates of unintended pregnancies: A poor woman is more than five times as likely to get pregnant by accident than an affluent woman.

That’s not because poor women are more sexually active. Research by Richard Reeves and Joanna Venator at Brookings has found that among single, childbearing-age women who say they’re not trying to get pregnant, the share having sex is virtually identical regardless of income. (It’s about two-thirds.)

In short, despite public admonitions that “responsible” singles should remain celibate, both rich and poor are sexually active. Yet somehow it’s predominantly poor women who end up getting pregnant.

Why? Largely because, when they do have sex, poor women are much less likely to use contraception.

Why might unplanned babies affect things like economic security and income mobility?

Having a child before you are ready to become a parent wreaks all sorts of havoc in your unexpectedly expecting life. That’s especially true for the women who give birth to the kids, but it holds for the men who father them, too. It makes finishing high school or college much more difficult. Which in turn makes ever getting a better job more difficult. Which makes other income supports — including government transfer programs — more compelling, for both mom and baby. Children brought into the world before their parents were financially or emotionally ready for them are likewise disadvantaged before they’re even born, no matter how loved they are.

Once upon a time, funding family planning programs to promote economic security was considered a bipartisan no-brainer. In a 1969 speech calling for better access to family planning services, Richard Nixon noted that “Unwanted or untimely childbearing is one of several forces which are driving many families into poverty or keeping them in that condition.” He later signed Title X, a law that funds reproductive health services for low-income people.

You would of course never know this bipartisan history given the ongoing battle to zero out funding for Title X and Planned Parenthood (which, like all other health-care providers, is already legally barred from using government funds for abortion). Today, efforts to expand access to birth control get tangled in debates about loose morals, or even eugenics. But improving access to birth control doesn’t mean giving government control over poor women’s fertility; it just means giving poor women the exact same (voluntary) options that are already available to their more privileged sisters: more choice over whether, when and with whom they decide to have a baby.

True, funding isn’t the only reason Americans are having children before they’re ready to become parents; inadequate sex ed, changing norms and other factors play a role too. But the affordability of the most effective, foolproof forms of birth control matters. Pilot projects have shown that offering free access to long-acting reversible contraceptives (such as IUDs, which have higher upfront costs than the pill or condoms but offer virtually no chance of “user error”) sharply reduces unplanned pregnancy and abortion rates among low-income women and teens.

If you want to increase high school and college completion rates, discourage people from going on welfare, improve low-income people’s earning potential and reduce government spending overall, more generous support for family planning services should be on your list. Maybe it’s not the only thing you advocate, or even your top priority, but it should at least be in the toolkit. For too long we’ve let fears of “casual sex” get in the way of the very real economic challenge of casual childbearing.