Children are time-consuming and expensive. They need food, clothing, and shelter; they need schooling and health care. If you're poor, the additional burden of a child, or lots of children, will likely make you poorer. Poverty is bad; and poverty for children is even worse. Therefore, poor people should have less children than rich people.
Obviously, there's something wrong with this logic; nobody dreams of a world in which families are means-tested before they're allowed to have a baby. And yet, the left has become fascinated with the connection between contraception and poverty reduction. Last month, Slate’s Jordan Weissmann wrote that “of the tools we have, making effective birth control cheap and easily available for low-income women is pretty much a no-brainer.” And last week, The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell also pushed contraception as an anti-poverty measure, pointing out that poor women are less likely to use contraception and five times more likely to get pregnant by accident than more affluent women. "Children brought into the world before their parents were financially or emotionally ready for them are likewise disadvantaged before they’re even born, no matter how loved they are," Rampell argued.
Rampell and Weissmann are right that poor women should have access to contraception, as they should have access to food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities. Poor women, as Rampell says, have more unwanted pregnancies because they have less access to, and information about, family planning. Giving them access to contraception, then, is a good in itself. But there's a difference between saying that contraception is a basic health need that should be provided to everyone, and saying that we need to give more contraception to the poor to reduce poverty. When the first blurs into the second, children become a sort of luxury good. To view contraception in these terms is to accept a status quo in which low-income families must choose between children and poverty. It may seem like a "no-brainer," but the easy rhetoric covers over the cruelty of the choices being offered to poor couples.
My wife's family offers one example of that cruelty. Her extended family is from Appalachia; her father and mother both come from large families, with a bewildering array of siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. Her dad married and then came up north to work in the steel mills. He and his wife were determined to make a better life for their children. Both of them loved kids, and came from families where many children were the norm. But they knew that they didn't have the resources to provide the kind of life they wanted for a large family. They had to choose between many children, or upward mobility. So they chose upward mobility, and my wife was an only child.
Liberals—and not a few conservatives—might well praise my wife's parents for their thrift and determination; this, after all, is how responsible people are supposed to behave. When you aren't financially able to support many children, you don't have many children. You husband your resources so that you can lift your family up the economic ladder. That's what the deserving poor, or the deserving working class, are supposed to look like.
But surely there's a problem when responsibility, for those at the bottom of the economy, means having to choose between children and a good life. Children, for many people, are a joy and a gift; they give life meaning. My wife and I only have one child, because that's all we wanted—but it would have been awful to have to choose between having him or being poor.
Arguments around contraception often are framed in terms of choice, and the fact that contraception can provide women with sexual autonomy and control over the size of their families is obviously important. But what’s less discussed is how economic policy restricts those choices. Hourly wages in the United States have stagnated or fallen for roughly 35 years, making it much more difficult for a parent to stay at home with kids, and yet American child care remains scandalously unsafe and unaffordable. (The Affordable Care Act has gone some way toward helping with children's healthcare—but single payer would still be better.)
Of course, most liberals don’t advocate for contraception as the sole means of reducing poverty; they also want to expand the social safety net. Contraception is just a pragmatic, wonkish fix to reduce poverty cheaply and efficiently by empowering the poor to take control of their own lives and fate.
Those are worthy goals, but is it really empowerment when the only correct choice, according to this argument, is for the poor to have fewer kids? Having a child shouldn’t be considered a extravagance like buying a yacht, and people who want children despite limited financial resources aren't irresponsible or misguided. Reducing poverty should mean giving parents the ability to raise their children free from want. It shouldn't have to mean getting rid of the want by not having children.