The XX Factor

Can Government-Subsidized Birth Control Really Save Taxpayer Money?

Photograph by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.

While the focus of the current tempest surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s comments toward Sandra Fluke has understandably been the insulting rhetoric itself, Limbaugh’s assertion that his real intent was to protect taxpayers from funding the promiscuous sex lives of young women has gone relatively unexamined. Here’s the gist of it, from the half-hearted apology Limbaugh released over the weekend:

I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit?

The point here is that people should be responsible enough to buy and use their own contraception, a dream with which, in a perfect, economically equal world, I don’t think anyone would disagree. The problem is that, for many women, the most effective forms of birth control are financially out of reach, not to mention the fact that given the paucity of our country’s commitment to comprehensive sex education, many wouldn’t know how to use them properly in the first place. But does that mean we should be subsidizing the pill on the taxpayer’s dime?

According to a new study released by the Brookings Institution, the answer is a resounding yes, to the tune of $1.32 billion. Those are savings that result when family planning access through Medicaid is expanded with a comparatively meager investment of $235 million, reducing unplanned births that will eventually become a burden on the state.   

The study, authored by Adam Thomas of Georgetown University, made use of a simulation model called FamilyScape, created by Brookings. In addition to the Medicaid measure, Thomas also looked at the effect of what he calls “evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention”—the kind of programs that combine abstinence advocacy with honest, thorough instruction in contraception methods. With an investment of $145 million, the taxpayers would see a return of $356 million in this area. Additionally, a national mass media education campaign costing $100 million would deliver $431 million in savings due to reduced unplanned pregnancies among poor people.

Thomas concludes the paper by noting the appealing benefits of these kinds of programs, particularly in our current economic climate:

These cost saving policies are particularly well suited to the current fiscal climate, in which state lawmakers are struggling to balance their budgets and the federal government is grappling with a yawning debt that is projected to increase in the years to come…In light of the prevalence of unintended pregnancy and the personal and societal costs that such pregnancies pose, policymakers would do well to invest further in these strategies.

I couldn’t agree more.