Not Women's Rights: Birth Control as Poverty Control in Arkansas

Article excerpt

IN THE 1960S, AS SECOND-WAVE FEMINISM and calls for women's reproductive rights swelled, birth-control advocates in Arkansas demanded that poorer women be granted greater access to contraception. But these demands were tailored to the federal government's growing focus on fighting poverty and a national perception that "overpopulation" had become a problem, rather than speaking the language of women's rights. Expanded access to birth control was essential to limiting the numbers of poor people.1 Arkansas's example illustrates how, historically, choices about whether and when to have children have been inextricably linked to women's economic situation and how birthcontrol initiatives were often justified as instruments of control rather than individual self-determination.

By the early 1960s, changes began to take place on the national level that affected poor women's access to birth control in Arkansas. The Cold War encouraged support for federally funded family-planning programs by people concerned primarily with overpopulation as a threat to political, social, and economic stability in the United States and abroad. Populationcontrol advocates aimed to prevent the spread of communism by limiting rates of population growth and, thus, they hoped, poverty in third-world nations. In 1961, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) formed a new division known as Planned Parenthood-World Population (PP-WP), which worked to build public support for population control as a part of United States foreign and domestic policy.

In the 1960s, both Democrats and Republicans supported federally funded family planning, hoping to contain rising welfare costs. Republican congressman George H. W. Bush of Texas, whose staunch support of family planning earned him the nickname "Rubbers" from Arkansas Democrat Wilbur D. Mills, warned that "our national welfare costs are rising phenomenally [and] that [blacks] cannot hope to acquire a larger share of American prosperity without cutting down on births."2 The numbers of people receiving public assistance had risen in the 1960s, as the Aid to Dependent Children program was amended to include two-parent families and renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1961. With the change, the number of people on assistance rose from 3 million in 1960, to 4.3 million in 1965, and to 8.5 million in 1970. In Arkansas, the number of recipients rose from 26,450 in 1960, to 30,900 in 1965, and 73,300 in 1971. Nationally, expenditures for AFDC rose from $1,644,100,000 in 1965 to $6,203,100,000 in 1971. In Arkansas, expenditures for AFDC rose from $5.6 million in 1965 to $21.4 million in 1971, but the average monthly AFDC payment in Arkansas was only $65.00 in 1965 and $97.00 in 1971 (in contrast to the national average of $137.00 and $188.00 respectively).3

At the time, some federal poicymakers argued that one of the sources of this "welfare explosion" was a rise in out-of-wedlock births, the product of what Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan called a "tangle of pathology" in poor urban black families. In his 1965 report "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," Moynihan asserted that the number of illegitimate children per 1,000 live births had increased by 11 among whites between 1940 and 1963 but by 68 percent among nonwhites, with 14 percent of black children receiving AFDC assistance but only 2 percent of white children.4 This was far from the whole story. AFDC's extension to two-parent families in 1961, increases in AFDC income eligibility levels in some northern states, court decisions that successfully challenged eligibility restrictions, including absent-father rules, and increased participation of eligible families all contributed to rising numbers of AFDC recipients. But given this concern over rising welfare costs, President Lyndon Johnson initiated federal funding for family-planning projects as a part of his "unconditional war on poverty. …