The Pill, the Condom, and the American Dream
Derek Thompson writes in the Atlantic:
It might seem like a mystery at first, even a paradox: The income gap between rich and poor adults is growing, but the achievement gap between rich and poor kids is shrinking.
This was not expected. For the last few decades, adult income inequality and childhood achievement inequality both increased at the same time, and the former trend seemed to drive the latter. Rich parents can spend more money on a variety of things (e.g., summer camps, tutors, musical crib mobiles that play Chopin’s “Nocturne in E-Flat”) to ensure that their kids grew up to be similarly successful. Between the 1970s and 2000s, the richest 10 percent of households more than doubled their spending per child, while the poorest third of the country could barely afford an increase.
But something important has changed recently—at least for the kids. Between 1998 and 2010, “the school readiness gap [between rich and poor kindergarteners] narrowed by 10 percent in math and 16 percent in reading,” as Sean F. Reardon, Jane Waldfogel, and Daphna Bassok write in The New York Times. The authors emphasize that this is because of better reading and math skills among poor kids, not a sudden collapse in literacy among six-year-olds in affluent private schools.
If poor parents are falling further behind rich parents, how are poor kids closing the gap? The researchers offer several explanations, like increased enrollment among state-funded preschools and low-income parents spending more time with their kids.
But here is another sudden and surprising trend that might be a factor: a great reduction in teen pregnancy between 2007 and 2013. A new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded that teenagers aren’t having less sex, but they are having fewer babies, because of a significant increase in contraceptives. Reported use of the pill, condoms, IUDs, and even the withdrawal method all increased substantially in the last nine years. The key statistic: The number of teens who self-reported using no contraception fell from 20 percent to 13 percent.
This is a huge deal: The number of sexually active American teenagers using no contraception fell by 35 percent in just seven years. Meanwhile, the teen birth rate has fallen almost 50 percent since 1990.
Why might a reduction in teen pregnancy lead to higher achieving poor kids? Unintended pregnancies are concentrated among poor and less educated mothers who are younger, not married, and often not ready to devote the amount of time, money, and attention to children that rich married couples can. With better contraceptive use, poor women can plan to have children only when they’re ready to raise them.
For the past four decades, the income gap isn’t the only chasm that has opened between the rich and poor. There is also what sociologist Robert Putnam calls . . .