Isabel Sawhill, Brookings Institution
Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage
November 4, 2014 10:00 AM
With over half of all births—many unplanned—to young adults in the United States today occurring outside of marriage, the result is an increase in poverty and inequality for children. One side of the political aisle argues for more social support for unmarried parents, while the other side argues for a return to traditional marriage.
Isabel Sawhill, Co-Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families and former president of APPAM, offers a third approach in her latest book Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage. Her solution is to change “drifters”—those having unplanned children early and outside of marriage—into those who delay parenthood until after they marry, whom Sawhill identifies as “planners.” She contends that these two distinct patterns are contributing to an emerging class divide and therefore threatening social mobility in the U.S.
“Raising children is hard and requires commitment; we need to empower young adults to only have children when they themselves feel ready to take on the task,” says Sawhill. “People interested in social policy have, in my view, given too little attention to how the circumstances of a child’s birth—including whether the child was wanted by both parents or not—affects a child’s life chances.”
Some people believe poverty leads to unwed and unintended childbearing, while others see the causation running in the other direction. Both are true; Sawhill recommends policymakers should reflect this in policies by providing more opportunities to climb the ladder—but also more opportunities to avoid unintended or too early childbearing. “The latter plank doesn’t get discussed enough in social policy circles,” she says. “If we care about disadvantaged kids, we need to intervene to help parents-to-be before their children are born, not just after.”
During the process of writing the book, Sawhill found that unintended births outside of marriage could be reduced dramatically if more people knew about, could afford, and use long-acting reversible contraception (LARC). She cited evidence from the St. Louis Choice project, Colorado’s family planning initiative, and from similar programs in Iowa that suggest what could be accomplished if brought to scale. “Young adults are very misinformed about the risks of pregnancy. After five years the chances of getting pregnant with a condom are 63%, with the pill they are 38 percent, but with a LARC they are under 2 percent,” she says. “Shifting people onto LARCs changes the default from ‘getting pregnant if you do nothing’ to ‘not getting pregnant if you do nothing.’ Changing the default revolutionized retirement planning—and it could revolutionize family planning.”
Generation Unbound is influenced by the work of several researchers, including Sara McLanahan, Kathy Edin, Andy Cherlin, and others. Sawhill draws on insights from the new field of behavioral economics, showing that it is possible, by changing the default, to move from a culture that accepts a high number of unplanned pregnancies to a culture in which adults only have children when they are ready to be a parent.
A nationally recognized social policy expert, Isabel V. Sawhill focuses on domestic poverty and federal fiscal policy, with a special interest in behavioral economics. She is a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, one of the most trusted and influential think tanks in the world. She has previously served as Vice President and Director of Economic Studies at Brookings and was president of APPAM in 1988. Her research has spanned a wide array of economic and social issues, including economic growth, poverty and inequality, social mobility, the well-being of children, and changes in the family. She is this year’s recipient of the APPAM Exemplar Award and will be giving a presentation From Research to Action: How to Affect the Policy Debateon Friday, November 7 at APPAM’s Fall Research Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.