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A Poverty-Fighting Program That Pays Its Own Way

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People have lots of ideas about how to address poverty. Most of them don’t work, as the United States has learned from more than 50 years of building a welfare state. Ever-hopeful social reformers always have some bright new idea they believe will make a difference — unlike all the bright new ideas that failed in the past. In the process, poverty has metastasized from a condition of material deprivation into inter-generational family breakdown and social dysfunction atop of material deprivation.

Some people would rise out of poverty if the economy could create more jobs and pay workers more. How to accomplish that falls under the rubric of economic policy. But escaping poverty for others means overcoming the challenge of dysfunctional parents — typically poor, single women — raising children in a dysfunctional environment. The odds are mightily against them. A few extraordinary individuals break out of the cycle; most do not.

Inter-generational poverty is, at its root, a demographic problem: baby mamas having babies of their own before they have the means and maturity to be good parents. As I have blogged before, poor women give birth to more children, and earlier in life, than women in higher income brackets. That’s why, while 11.7% of all Virginians live in the poverty, according to 2013 numbers, 15% of all children live in poverty.

When Ralph S. Northam, Virginia’s Democratic lieutenant governor, opines about how to build a healthier, more prosperous Virginia, as he did on January 19, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, he places great emphasis on contraception — something you don’t see much of from Republicans. Northam also espouses traditional remedies like expanding Medicaid and pre-K education, which to my mind may alleviate the symptoms of poverty but do little to lift anyone out of it. But Northam’s discussion of birth control gets to the heart of the matter.

Citing recommendations of the Commonwealth Council on Childhood Success, of which he is chairman, he advocates expanding education and access to birth control, including Long-Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC) such as IUDs and birth control patches. The goal is to empower young women to decide when they want to start a family and when they want to focus on other life goals like getting an education or starting a business.

One such program in Colorado reduced teen births by 40% and teen abortions by 42%, Northam writes. “For every $1 invested in educating women and providing access to contraceptive options, the program saved Colorado more than $5 in Medicaid costs.” You can’t beat that: a program that funds itself out of the identifiable savings it generates.
Some Republicans and conservatives are reluctant to support birth control on the grounds that teenagers should practice abstention. Well, in an ideal world that would be nice. Republicans and conservatives should feel free to teach abstention in their own homes and churches, and even to include it as part of sex-ed curricula in schools. The idea might work in stable social environments where parents retain a lot of control over their children’s lives. But in the real world of inner cities and trailer parks and mountain hollows where peoples’ lives are more disordered, sex is happening regardless.

Think about it: A program like the one that Northam describes (1) reduces pregnancies and births among poor teens and young women, (2) reduces abortions, and (3) pays for itself with identifiable Medicaid savings. That’s about as close to a win-win-win as you can get in social welfare policy.

(This article first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on January 19, 2016)

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