Race, Work, and Poverty: Reproductive Health Matters

The Shriver Report – Live Discussions from inspiring leaders

Data recently published in the Shriver Report reveals that 48 million working American women and 28 million children are teetering on the edge of poverty. The key findings of the report challenge long held beliefs that employment for women ensures their economic security. Two major cultural shifts over the past 50 years work against women’s economic security. First, although women earn the lion’s share of college and advanced degrees, they are often employed in low-wage and pink collar jobs that leave them economically vulnerable. Second, more women are the sole  breadwinners for their families. More than half of all babies born to mothers 30 and under are born to unmarried mothers who are mostly white. These data show that economic security and social mobility for women are influenced by women’s ability to negotiate their market labor and control their fertility.

Low-wealth women and women of color, have a disproportionately difficult time controlling their fertility. Latinas that  are considered low-wealth are nearly twice as likely to have an unintended pregnancy as white women that are similarly considered low-wealth.  And African American women are three times as likely as white women to experience an unintended pregnancy.  Access to reproductive care gives women greater autonomy in deciding  when they become parents, how they partner, and which educational and professional opportunities they will pursue. When women are hampered in making these decisions, there are long term socioeconomic costs. For low-wealth women, paying out of pocket for health and reproductive care can be a decision that precedes financial hardship. Caring for a child that one cannot afford imposes increased economic strain and other stresses on already economically vulnerable women and their families. Women’s ability to make their own health decisions and determine the best time, based on her circumstances, to become a parent directly impacts their personal and professional futures and their long-term socioeconomic health.

Yet much of the current national policy discourse on improving the long-term economic outcomes for low-wealth women centers on solutions like delaying childbirth. In fact, this recommendation is central to the Shriver Report. While delaying pregnancy  goes hand in hand with women’s ability to control their fertility, delaying pregnancy as a singularly focused policy solution overlooks systemic issues such as institutional racism and generational poverty.  Many solutions stemming from the idea of delaying pregnancy reduces the tools women have to control their own reproductive health and manage their market labor. Recommending that women delay pregnancy as a means of bolstering economic security assumes unintended pregnancy alone causes of poverty and assumes that reducing unplanned pregnancy eliminates poverty. These assumptions are damaging to any agenda intended to promote economic security and social mobility for women.

If women are to move away from the brink of poverty we must institute social and public policies that give women control of their fertility and the ability to negotiate their market labor. At a time when two thirds of American women are part of the work force with forty percent singlehandedly providing for their families; and at a moment when women make the majority of American consumer decisions, women’s economic immobility threatens the economic health of our nation.

Improving the nation’s economic health means ensuring that women are paid fair and equal wages with access to higher paying jobs. The gender based wage gap disproportionately hurts low-wealth women and women of color. Where national statistics show women earn 77 cents to every dollar for comparable work of their male counterparts, African American women earn 64 cents and Latina women earn 55 cents to every dollar of comparable work by white women. Ensuring economic stability and social mobility for women means paying them an equal and a living wage.

Robust public and social policies that ensure women’s ability to control their reproductive health and manage their market labor ensures the nation’s long-term economic well-being.

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