Academic journal article Brookings Papers on Economic Activity

Fifty Years of Family Planning: New Evidence on the Long-Run Effects of Increasing Access to Contraception

Academic journal article Brookings Papers on Economic Activity

Fifty Years of Family Planning: New Evidence on the Long-Run Effects of Increasing Access to Contraception

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT This paper assembles new evidence on some of the longer-term benefits of U.S. family planning policies, defined in this paper as those increasing legal or financial access to modern contraceptives. The analysis leverages two large policy changes that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s: first, the interaction of the birth control pill's introduction with Comstock-era restrictions on the sale of contraceptives and the repeal of these laws after Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965; and second, the expansion of federal funding for local family planning programs from 1964 to 1973. Building on previous research that demonstrates both policies' effects on fertility rates, I find that individuals' access to contraceptives influenced their children's college completion, labor force participation, wages, and family incomes decades later.

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Family planning policies, defined in this paper as those increasing legal or financial access to modern contraceptives and related education and medical services, have grown increasingly controversial over the last decade. (1) In 2010 and 2011, congressional Republicans supported proposals to cut family planning funding through Title X of the Public Health Service Act, which funds U.S. family planning clinics serving over 4 million women (Cohen 2011). This represents a significant departure from the bipartisan support enjoyed by these programs over the last 40 years. The first legislation authorizing a national family planning program passed in 1970 with the strong support of Republican President Richard Nixon. In fact, public opinion surveys indicate that support for family planning programs was stronger at that time among Republicans than among Democrats. (2)

Much of the current debate surrounding family planning focuses on women's reproductive rights and health. In the 1960s, however, proponents of these programs often emphasized their links to the economy. Both President Lyndon Johnson and President Nixon stressed how family planning programs would promote the opportunities of children and families and thus drive economic growth. This reasoning is consistent with a long theoretical tradition in economics, including standard formulations of the quantity-quality models of investments in children (Becker and Lewis 1973, Willis 1973, Hotz, Klerman, and Willis 1997) and standard formulations of the importance of family size and credit constraints in limiting children's human capital investment (Becker and Tomes 1979, 1986). (3) Through changes in fertility rates and these human capital channels, family planning policies could directly affect the long-run growth of the economy (Becker, Murphy, and Tamura 1990).

The empirical literature provides evidence consistent with causal links running from family planning to children's adult outcomes. It is well known that poorer families have more children than more affluent families. It is also known that children from poorer families receive fewer parental time and resource investments (Guryan, Hurst, and Kearney 2008), and that they are more likely to experience delayed academic development and health problems, live in more dangerous neighborhoods, and attend under-performing schools (Levine and Zimmerman 2010). Children from poorer households are less likely to graduate from high school and to complete college (Bailey and Dynarski 2011), which limits their earnings potential later in life. Ultimately, over 40 percent of children born to parents in the lowest quintile of family income remain in that income quintile as adults (Pew Charitable Trusts 2012, figure 3, p. 6).

However, the extent to which growing up in a larger family per se causes adult disadvantage is unclear. Poverty itself may directly affect adult outcomes through channels such as inadequate nutrition, poor health care, and limited access to quality education. That said, larger family size may have an independent and direct effect on adult outcomes, for instance by reducing the amount of time parents spend with each child or reducing resources available for each child's education. …

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