The Little Woman Has A Job: The Pill and Prosperity

The PillContraception is an economic issue.  The point seems to be lost on Brian Fischer of the American Family Association:

“Case in point: taxpayer-funded contraception. The utter disaster I call MussoliniCare may soon make contraception free (which means everybody else pays for it) to women in the U.S. This is a perfectly terrible idea. If couples want to have sex outside marriage, and don’’t want to conceive children while doing it, let them buy their own contraception or get it from some non-taxpayer funded charity foolish enough to support sexual irresponsibility.”

We could make the obvious point that the Affordable Care Act simply requires that private health insurance plans offer contraceptive prescription coverage, or that most sexual intimacy happens between married couples.  But let’s not let facts get in the way of a good rant, and the Right’s obliviousness to the point that contraception is an economic issue.

“A much higher proportion of married than of never-married women use a contraceptive method (77% vs. 42%). This is largely because married women are more likely to be sexually active. But even among those at risk of unintended pregnancy, contraceptive use is higher among currently married women than among never-married women (93% vs. 83%).” [GuttmacherInst]

Now, why would this be the case?  The answer is economic:

“One of the most influential and frequently cited studies of the impact the pill has had on women’s lives comes from Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz. The two Harvard economists argue that the pill gave women “far greater certainty regarding the pregnancy consequences of sex.” That “lowered the costs of engaging in long-term career investments,” freeing women to finish high school or go to college, for instance, rather than settling down.” [NYT]

True?  Look at the graph from the Department of Labor on the educational attainment of women in the U.S. work force since 1970:

Women Work Force Educational AttainmentIn the 1970’s the percentage of women in the work force with a college education was about 11.2%, a figure which increased to 36.4% by 2010.   Further, we are not speaking of a small number of women, we’re speaking about nearly 60% of the women in this country participating in the labor market.

“In 2009, 59.2 percent of women were in the labor force: of 122 million women in the United States, 72 million were classified as either employed or unemployed. The percentage of women in the labor force has been relatively stable over the past several years.” [BLS]

However if we step back and look at the trends since the 1970’s there’s a picture of increasing participation of women in the labor force which should inform the value of women in the U.S. economy.

Women in Work Force 1970 to 2009We can, and should, engage in discussions about the construction of the work-place and the development of “family friendly” corporate institutions, or the effect of inflationary pressures on American families, [] (] But, the fact remains that only about 7% of our nation’s households are “single income traditional.”   In short, there are more married women in the workforce, they are better educated, and they are a significant source of the economic growth in this country in the past 30 years.   The MGI report for the Wall Street Journal (pdf) highlighted the importance of increasing the female side of the economic ledger:

“To sustain the historic rate of GDP growth of approximately 3% and maintain the United States’ leadership in the global economy, MGI reports that the nation will need a combination of some workforce expansion and a burst of productivity—driven by innovation and operational improvements. Women are critical to both forms of growth…”

It doesn’t take too much imagination or logic to conclude that calls for limiting women’s access to contraception — which allows family planning, enabling women to “engage in long term career investments” — is economically counter-productive.   Nor does it require much effort to acknowledge the conclusions that increased earning power is associated with access to contraceptive prescriptions.

A study by Martha J. Bailey, Brad Hershbein and Amalia R. Miller helps assign a dollar value to those tectonic shifts. For instance, they show that young women who won access to the pill in the 1960s ended up earning an 8 percent premium on their hourly wages by age 50. [NYT]

That’s what those “long term career investments” will get you.   It will also continue to propel us toward more income equality between genders.   The NBER Working Paper (pdf 2012) on the subject yielded this conclusion:

“Using state-by-birth-cohort variation in legal access, we show that younger access to the Pill conferred an 8-percent hourly wage premium by age fifty. Our estimates imply that the Pill can account for 10 percent of the convergence of the gender gap in the 1980s and 30 percent in the 1990s.”

In short, those calling for a return to the Cro-Magnon Era of Masculine Economics  — if indeed those ancestors weren’t matriarchal — are demanding that for the sake of an outmoded social model of male domination we scrap the female contributions to economic growth, dismiss the female contributions to family income, do without the female investment in economic productivity, and impose a specific social ideology upon our entire economic system.

What would indeed be “irresponsible” is to continue to make it difficult for dual income families to succeed in the very real economy we have now.  We could be considering the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act, or proposing more child care services such as those available in Germany.  We could be addressing the need for maternity leave and other family-friendly legislation.    In the corporate sphere we could be conversing about the “pernicious mindsets” that prevents women from rising in the ranks, or the revisions of outmoded institutional thinking which equates more time on the job to more productivity for the company.

As long as the public discourse concerning the issues faced by women and their families in the workforce is driven by sensationalistic, misogynistic, and ideological narratives, we will continue to have trouble addressing the real economic issues which have real impacts on our real country, real states, and real families.

References and Resources: “Invest in Women, Invest In America,” Majority Staff of the Joint Economic Committee, U.S. Senate, December 2010 (pdf).  “Unlocking the full potential of women in the U.S. economy,” McKinsey Group International (Wall Street Journal), 2011, (pdf).   Annie Lowrey, “The Economic Impact of the Pill,” New York Times, March 6, 2012.  “Subsidized Contraception, Fertility, and Sexual Behavior,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Kearney & Levine, April 2007.  The Editor’s Desk, “Women in the Workforce: 1970-2010,” Department of Labor.  “Educational Attainment of Women in the Labor Force,” The Editor’s Desk, Department of Labor.   “The Importance of Sex,” The Economist, April 12, 2006.  “The Opt In Revolution? Contraception and the Gender Gap in Wages,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper,  March 2012. (pdf)

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