Yesterday’s faith-based poverty summit at Georgetown University, the first day of a three-day meeting bringing together Evangelical and Catholic leaders to discuss ways to reduce poverty and inequality, was noticeably impoverished and unequal itself—when it came to women.
The much-touted panel on which President Obama appeared lacked a single women who was deemed expert enough to discuss solutions for poverty alongside the likes of American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, and Harvard University Professor and Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam.
This, despite the fact that women constitute the majority of poor Americans: nearly 6 in 10 poor adults are women and 6 in 10 poor children live in households headed by women. And the lack of representation for women of color was especially striking given that the poverty rate for African American women hovers near 28% compared to just over 10% for White women.
Just as striking, and not surprising given the composition of the panel, was the lack of discussion about reproductive justice and unintended pregnancy and their relationship to poverty. Actual poverty experts are increasingly recognizing the importance of preventing unintended pregnancy among young, unmarried women living in poverty—who are five times more likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy.
Unintended pregnancy has “significant implications for social mobility given that unplanned childbearing is associated with higher rates of poverty, less family stability, and worse outcomes for children,” according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution. The study found that one of the single biggest factors driving the growing gap between the rich and the poor in terms of unplanned pregnancy was the fact that “low-income women are less likely to use contraception, are thus more likely to get pregnant, and also have lower abortion rates when compared to their more affluent counterparts.”
Brookings’ Isabel Sawhill has suggested that increasing poor women’s access to expensive, but highly effective long-term methods of contraception, like the IUD, could be a game-changer in preventing unintended pregnancy and breaking the cycle of poverty:
[T]he most realistic approach to slowing the growth of single-parent families is to help women delay childbearing until both parents are ready to raise a child and prepared to make a long-term commitment to the other parent. Doing so will improve child well-being and reduce child poverty rates.
Despite a recognition of the snowballing consequences of what family you are born into—as Putnam noted, “the most important decision that anybody makes is choosing their parents”—and talk about “common ground” on issues like expanding the child tax credit and the need for employment to stabilize communities and the middle class, there wasn’t a single mention of the growing consensus about the devastating impact of unintended pregnancy on poor women and concrete solutions to address it. Instead, discussion of solutions mainly focused on the proper balance between the welfare state and public investment and “free market” solutions to poverty.
When Dionne did tentatively raise the issue of “family structure,” Putman meandered around about “irresponsible” parents and seemed unaware of cutting-edge solutions like increased access to long-acting contraception:
I’m not making an attack on single moms, who are often doing terrific jobs in the face of lots of obstacles, but I am saying it’s harder to do that. And therefore, we need to think, all of us, including those of us—and I know the President agrees with me about this—even those of us on the more progressive side have to think, how did we get into a state in which two-thirds of American kids coming from what we used to call the working class have only a single parent, and what can we do to fix that?
I’m not sure this is government’s role. But I do think that if we’re concerned about poverty, we also, all of us, have to think about this purple side of the problem—I mean, this family side of the problem.
But you can’t silo the “family side of the problem” from the economic side—they’re two sides of the same coin. Access to contraception—and yes, abortion—is essential to giving women access to educational and economic opportunity and ensuring that children are born into stable families, whether one-parent or two-parent. And government, and the social institutions that panelists were so happy to tout, do have a role in ensuring that women have access to appropriate reproductive health care and education.
In the waning moments of the panel, Obama did call out the evangelical community and faith-based groups for being more concerned with thwarting abortion rights than fighting poverty:
There is great caring and great concern, but when it comes to what are you really going to the mat for, what’s the defining issue, when you’re talking in your congregations, what’s the thing that is really going to capture the essence of who we are as Christians, or as Catholics, or what have you, that this is oftentimes viewed as a ‘nice to have’ relative to an issue like abortion.
And while he is right that both Catholics and Evangelicals often seem more worried about children before they are born than after (though the Catholic Church is more consistent in its support for safety-net programs) the reality is that abortion rights can’t be separated from the larger issue of reproductive justice, which itself can’t be separated from the issues of poverty and opportunity—as many women get and would have happily shared—had they been asked.