… by 2012, the teen birth rate had reached the lowest level reported in over six decades. In the meantime, the problem has moved up the age scale. It is now primarily women and men in their twenties who are having children outside of marriage, many of them unplanned… Once a young single woman has had an unplanned pregnancy, followed by a baby out of wedlock, she is less likely to marry and more likely to have additional children outside of marriage… Perhaps the solution is not to bring back early marriage but instead to encourage young adults to delay childbearing until they are ready to marry.1

Isabel V. Sawhill’s latest book, Generation Unbound, describes a significant social challenge in the United States: the increasing incidence of children born into adverse circumstances. The common pattern that Sawhill describes is a woman at the lower end of the income scale who becomes pregnant unintentionally, gives birth, and raises the child as a single mother. The arrangement is likely to involve poverty both for the mother and for her child or children.

Sawhill points out:

Indeed, the average woman now has her first baby before she marries. This reversal of the normal sequence first occurred in the late 1980s. One report calls it “the great crossover”—the point at which, for the first time, the average age at marriage exceeded the average age at first birth among American women.

She writes,

… the youngest generation seems to have decoupled marriage and childbearing. They place more emphasis on the importance of children and less emphasis on marriage.

Sawhill argues that this is a problem for more than just the individuals directly involved.

The problem with the purely libertarian perspective, however, is that family living arrangements and behaviors do have consequences for individuals within the family and for society. In particular, the growth in the number of single-parent families has had consequences for children. Children do not get to pick their parents or their living arrangements. And society pays a high price for supporting children in single-parent families or for using schools and other extra-family institutions to substitute for what struggling parents cannot provide… instead of distributing resources within the family via private and voluntary transfers of time and money, we must now redistribute more resources between households, necessitating higher taxes and less personal forms of care. Some of this collective action is surely warranted and beneficial, but how far do we want to go with the substitution of public institutions for what we used to assume would occur within the family?

Extrapolating from recent trends, Sawhill foresees more than sixteen million single-parent families by 2030. Government income transfers to these families would total about $120 billion. Moreover, she writes,

… single-parent families are disproportionate users of other services for themselves and their children, including special education, child care subsidies, Head Start, and child welfare services.

The dismal prospects for many of these children are reflected in statistics like the following, cited by Sawhill:

… the probability that children born into the bottom fifth of household income will remain there is 50 percent for those with never-married mothers, 32 percent for those with discontinuously married mothers, and 17 percent for those with continuously married mothers.

However, Sawhill goes on to note that,

Marriage is correlated with many other factors that affect a child’s life prospects. When we adjust for as many of these other factors as possible, family structure still has an effect on intergenerational mobility, but it is much smaller and we cannot exclude the possibility that it is spurious.

Sawhill views the essence of the problem as women failing to prevent unwanted pregnancies. She believes that many women who become pregnant unintentionally do so because they are poor at planning and at avoiding impulsive behavior. Commenting on a study of particularly troubled women, Sawhill writes:

Their inability to plan was evident in other areas of their lives as well. The whole idea of not doing something now because it might make life tougher later on did not seem to be part of their behavioral repertoire.

Sawhill says that this inability to plan ahead means that many contraceptive methods will not be used properly. It also means that the high cost of effective methods may be a deterrent to their use.

The most effective contraceptive methods, such as IUDs and the implant, have very high up-front costs, though they are cheaper in the long run than, say, the pill.

Once these sorts of contraceptives are in place, women who are less than highly conscientious can nonetheless avoid pregnancy. Sawhill’s policy proposals are to reduce the financial burden of using such contraceptives and to promote their use in the media. Suggests Sawhill,

There are three ways that policymakers and private sector leaders can nudge individuals toward making better decisions about marriage and childbearing: (1) change the message about contraception; (2) motivate commitment to a partner by linking it to the well-being of children; and above all (3) change the default through greater use of long-acting contraceptives.

Sawhill believes that if such policies are successful, then women will bear fewer unwanted children. The children who are born are more likely to grow up with mothers who are mature and in committed relationships.

Sawhill even foresees the potential for childbirth to fall well below the replacement rate.

Bear in mind that right now 60 percent of all childbearing among young single adults in the United States is unintended. As women’s education and employment opportunities continue to grow, and as the promise of newer and more effective forms of contraception is realized, women will almost surely have even fewer children than they do today.

Should this drop in fertility come to pass, Sawhill proposes using increased immigration to keep the population from falling.

As Sawhill points out, the approach that progressives advocate for addressing this problem is to provide more resources to poor families. However, Sawhill asks,

Why should a middle-class family that is struggling to make ends meet, and as part of that struggle is limiting the number of children it has, be required to pay higher taxes to support those with larger families?

Moreover, there is an implicit assumption in progressive thought that very little of the behavioral characteristics that lead to unwanted pregnancies are innate. Rather, people are intrinsically the same, and only the accident of financial circumstance leads some people to have unwanted children while others plan their lives with care.

For more on these topics, see “The Relentless Subjectivity of Value,” by Max Borders at the Library of Economics and Liberty, May 3, 2010.

See also the podcast episode Richard Thaler on Libertarian Paternalism on EconTalk, the video interview A Conversation with Gary Becker on EconVideos,

and Poverty in America, by Isabel Sawhill, in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

The conservative point of view would instead be that there has always been a segment of the population that is less able to postpone having children until they are in a stable, committed relationship. In the past, having unplanned children would have resulted in “shotgun” marriages or placing children in orphanages. However, since the War on Poverty undertaken by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, government has provided resources that make it possible for mothers to remain single and hold onto unplanned children. Conservatives would like to return to the older cultural patterns.

Sawhill rejects the progressive view as unproven and unrealistic. She believes that poor single women should receive more resources from taxpayers, but she thinks that this by itself is unlikely to decrease unwanted pregnancies. However, she also rejects the conservative view that the answer is to return to traditional marriage. Such cultural reversion is also unrealistic according to Sawhill, who uses the metaphor of squeezing toothpaste back into a tube.

What would a libertarian say? I myself would be very inclined to resist government involvement in people’s decisions about having children.

Although Sawhill refers to these pregnancies as unplanned and to the children as unwanted, I would note that the mothers’ “revealed preference” is to have children. Not only do they become pregnant, they choose not to terminate their pregnancies or seek to place their children for adoption.

Sawhill herself writes that,

In much poorer communities, having a child adds meaning to one’s life. Relationships between adults, by contrast, are more fragile and expendable—a sad fact and one that is inconsistent with what is best for their children.

“But what is best for their children? Sawhill seems to imply that it is best for them not to be born at all.”

But what is best for their children? Sawhill seems to imply that it is best for them not to be born at all. But that is probably not what they would say, even though the affluent among us may shudder at descriptions of the lives that poor children lead.

It may very well be that the most cost-effective way for the state to reduce poverty is to “nudge” poor women to have fewer children before they are able to establish committed relationships. However, a pure libertarian would say that reducing poverty is not a task that the state should take on in the first place. Instead, let private organizations deal with poor families. Indeed, private organizations may be better than the government at combining behavioral advice with support.

Even as a bleeding-heart libertarian, I would prefer simple income transfers to policies that presume to tell people when and when not to have children. I am inclined to wish Sawhill success in her efforts to improve the ability of young women to plan their families. However, I would like to see the state stay very far away from such issues.


Isabel V. Sawhill, Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage. Brookings Institution Press. September, 2014.


*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of five books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; and Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.