The blogs have already been having plenty of fun with new guidelines recommending that federal grant money be used to target unmarried 19-to-29 year olds with a message of sexual abstinence. (Which should be a hard sell, since 90 percent of folks in that age range do have sex.) This is offensive enough on its face, but I wanted to take a closer look at one claim by Health and Human Services’ kids-and-families point man Wade Horn:
“The message is ‘It’s better to wait until you’re married to bear or father children,’ ” Horn said. “The only 100% effective way of getting there is abstinence.”
This is, of course, a silly way to talk on its own terms. The best way to avoid ever getting sick might be to lock yourself in a hermetically sealed bubble, but almost nobody thinks that’s a desirable tradeoff, except when the risk of contracting something fatal is very very high. And for plenty of people in that age range, avoiding unmarried childbearing doesn’t seem to be much of a problem. As I noted in a review essay on two recent books about marriage:
[T]here’s a class chasm in family structure: Some 3 percent of births to college-educated women take place outside of marriage, compared to almost 40 percent among high school dropouts.
Kay Hymowitz makes a similar point in a recent City Journal article I cited in my review. I suppose it’s possible that the educated are marginally more abstemious, but unless my social sample is radically unrepresentative, it’s not remotely enough to explain that sort of gap—especially not when you take into account the tendency of educated women to marry later than their less educated counterparts. Rather, this suggests that people with the desire to delay childbearing until marriage who have access to the necessary information and technology are overwhelmingly capable of doing so—if not “100 percent,” then at the very least 97 percent. If out-of-wedlock births dropped to 3 percent across the board—the figure upper-classes apparently manage without being conspicuously more sexually puritanical—people like Wade Horn would presumably turn cartwheels.
It’s tempting to conclude that the problem here is just to get the less-educated populations access to the same information and family planning technology that folks with diplomas have. Except, as the authors of one of the books I reviewed in the article mentioned above conclude, this doesn’t really seem to be where the gap between the groups lies. It’s not that women with a high school education don’t know how to prevent pregnancy while remaining sexually active, it’s that lacking the avenues for personal fulfillment open to their more privileged counterparts, they’re not all that motivated to. If the goal is childlessness (until marriage), actually practicing abstinence may be a very marginally more effective way of “getting there” than effectively practiced birth control. And, more importantly, preaching abstinence is almost certainly a less effective way of “getting there” than making sure people are prepared when, predictably, most of them become sexually active despite every bureaucratic exhortation. But neither of these will matter all that much if “there” isn’t somewhere your target population wants to get. Maybe we should expend less energy worrying about how to convince young people to adopt our preferred method of postponing reproduction and more about whether they’re persuaded that it’s a good idea to postpone it, one way or another.