Politics

Outlawing Abortion Will Increase Child Poverty. Republicans Couldn’t Care Less.

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on December 1, 2021. - The justices weigh whether to uphold a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks and overrule the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on December 1, 2021. OLIVIER DOULIERY/Getty Images

The old Democratic line about Republicans is that they care deeply about human life right up until the moment a child is actually born, and then they’re on their own. The party has spent decades fighting to abolish abortion and preaching the sancticty of life, all while supporting the death penalty and opposing social spending programs aimed at helping struggling parents and their kids.

This month, that dynamic has been on display perhaps more vividly than ever before.

After Wednesday’s oral arguments over Mississippi’s abortion ban, the GOP-dominated Supreme Court appears ready to fulfill the dreams of conservative activists everywhere, and fully overturn Roe v. Wade, setting the stage for dozens of other states to outlaw the procedure in short order. Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, Republicans are busy fighting against Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act, much of which is aimed at supporting parents with childcare services and tax credits for reducing family poverty—the sorts of priorities that a party that actually cared about children, as opposed to fetuses, might embrace.

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If the conservative movement sees ultimate succes in Dobbs, the rest of the country will soon relearn that outlawing abortion is a pro-poverty policy, and that Republicans are offering nothing to address its dire consequences.

I’m not saying Republicans are necessarily hypocrites for opposing the specifics of Biden’s family agenda (plenty of progressives have found fault with its various pieces). But, with the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney, whose genuinely bold proposal for a child tax allowance went nowhere within his party, the GOP has nothing resembling an alternative to Democratic plans that would help the many women who will now have no choice but to birth children they lack the means to support.

And let’s be clear: If Roe falls, as now seems likely, it is all but certain that more American children will be born to poor single-parents, many of whom already have children they are financially struggling to raise. That much should be obvious to anyone who takes even a brief glance at abortion statistics. In 2014, 49 percent of women who terminated their pregnancies survived on incomes below the poverty line, 55 percent were unmarried and not living with a partner, and 59 percent had already given birth at least once before, according to the most up-to-date analysis by the Guttmacher Institute. A major study that asked nearly 1,000 women why they were seeking abortions found that three of the most popular answers were finances (40 percent), issues with the father (31 percent), and the need to focus on their other children (29 percent).

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The more sophisticated research looking at the impact of abortion on family outcomes offers the same conclusion: Limits on the procedure lead to more financial hardship for kids and their parents.

In the late 1990s, for instance, economists Jonathan Gruber, Philip Levine, and Douglas Staiger pieced together a hypothetical profile of the children who were never born as a result of Roe v. Wade, essentially by comparing family demographics in states that legalized abortion before the court’s decision to those in states that legalized after it. The researchers concluded that, had they been born, those children would be “60 percent more likely to live in a single-parent household, 50 percent more likely to live in poverty, 45 percent more likely to be in a household collecting welfare, and 40 percent more likely to die during the first year of life,” compared to the average. Gruber told me he believes those numbers would still be applicable today, and that the consequences might even be more severe “in states like Texas where the social safety net is probably weaker than it was in the mid-1970s.” Meanwhile, a forthcoming paper in the American Economic Journal finds that women who are denied an abortion because their pregnancy is slightly too far along suffer significant financial distress as a result, ending up with more passed due debt, bankruptcies, evictions, and tax liens. Unsurprisingly, making abortion more widely available seems to improve the lifetime outcomes of children who are born when it comes to measures like drug use and graduating from college, becuase women can choose to become parents when they feel ready and take better care of the children they already do have.

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My guess is that most pro-life conservatives would shrug all these findings off, by simply saying it’s better that a child be born poor than not be born at all. But that’s not really the issue. A remotely humane pro-life movement wouldn’t demand that kids be born into economic misery. Instead, they’d back policies that support parents and their children once they’re out of the womb.

In other words, it might support something like Biden’s agenda, which among other things would subsidize high-quality child care and universal pre-k, and offer cash support to poorer families via the new and improved Child Tax Credit. These are all policies that would make it easier to help single-moms raise children, and could theoretically make a post-Roe world less financially nightmarish for families. But they run afoul of the GOP’s opposition to social spending by the government, and thus face across the board opposition from conservatives.

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As for the Republicans’ own anti-poverty platform? It’s been a joke for years, mostly consisting of vague bromides about encouraging marriage, and warmed over ideas borrowed from 90s-era welfare reform that flop whenever someone tries to adapt them to today (see the debaclous efforts to attach work requirements to Medicaid). Some conservatives, such as Justice Amy Coney Barrett, ghoulishly seem to think that the answer is for more women to simply put their unwanted children up for adoption, a view that basically treats poor mothers as surrogate wombs for richer families, and ignores how emotionally scarring it can be for women to part with a baby once they’ve actually given birth.

The debate about abortion is not primarily about economics, but that doesn’t mean a Supreme Court decision to end women’s rights to control their bodily autonomy won’t also have devastating financial impacts on families as well. Republicans appear perfectly content to let them suffer.

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