The XX Factor

Study Finds That Access to Birth Control Increases Women’s Wages, but Do Conservative Women Care? 

A significant amount of wage increase for women in the past half-century can be attributed to access to birth control


LiveScience reported yesterday on a working paper out from University of Michigan economist Martha Bailey, which suggests that about 1/3 of women’s wage increases relative to men since the 1960s have been the result of access to the birth control pill. Bailey explained the findings in terms of women having the ability to better plan their lives, both personally and professionally:

“As the pill provided younger women the expectation of greater control over childbearing, women invested more in their human capital and careers…Most affected were women with some college, who benefitted from these investments through remarkable wage gains over their lifetimes.”

Bailey’s team used data from a longitudinal survey that started tracking and interviewing women in 1968. As such, the subjects starting taking the pill at different ages as their respective states allowed it; the women who benefited from the earliest access saw 8 per cent higher pay than their colleagues by the 1980s and ‘90s. Bailey added that, due to the limited scope of her data, these gains likely reflect only a small portion of the good the pill has done.

These results should lend further credence to the idea that making birth control available to women through an employer’s insurance or otherwise is good policy. If women are able to more effectively manage the timing of major events in their lives—whether at school, at work, or at home—the economic outcomes are bound to be better, both for the individual herself as well as for the family she supports, should she choose to have children. All of which is to say that the anti-contraception, “family values” posturing of conservatives like Rick Santorum is based more on feelings than facts—I doubt that any logical person would deny the good that higher wages can bring to a family.

But then again, if you believe what Politico had to say yesterday, many conservative women aren’t all that enticed by the extra cash. According to the piece, Santorum’s favorability among that demographic has increased by 22 points since January, apparently due in part to the perception that the candidate would work to get women out of the job and back into the house. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention explains:

“The majority of women in this country who have children under 12 would prefer to be at home, but they’re forced to work because of a tax system that devalues child rearing,” he said. “If Mr. Santorum had his way… he would enable mothers who wanted to stay home with their children.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay home with your children, but I doubt that the “majority” of American women would like to give up the professional progress made since the ‘60s either. “Choice” is the operative word here, but if Santorum gets his way, the options are going to become a lot more limited.