Sue Bradford might actually be right, but for the wrong reasons

The government formally announced on 7 May the Budget implications of its welfare reform plans. Strangely, or maybe that should be predictably, media attention has focussed on the relatively peripheral government initiative to offer long-term contraception for beneficiaries and their daughters. A lot of the media attention was spurred by Sue Bradford’s histrionic response that it was “totally unacceptable” for the Government to get involved in women’s reproduction (http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/6876758/Beneficiary-contraceptive-plan-intrusive refers).

In principle, I actually agree with this statement, but it seems very late in the day to become concerned about the influence that government policy might have on people’s decisions about reproduction. Government policies have been “involved in women’s reproduction” for about as long as there have been governments. This is not just directly through policies about access to contraception and abortion, but also indirectly via the myriad of tax and spending rules that governments operate. Like it or not, the government’s rules impact on the distribution of wealth in society and this distribution of wealth directly influences marriage and child bearing decisions.

Income support policies and particularly the tax system via working for families financially rewards people for having children. These rewards may not be at the forefront of people’s minds when they consider starting a family, but much of what modern governments do is about promoting child rearing. It begins with the provision of public health services, then moves on to support for early childhood services, spending on education, a tax system that redistributes wealth towards households with children, and a benefit system that recognises the number of dependent children in its calculation of income support.

The stated aim of the government’s latest contraception policy appears reasonable; reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancies and children by increasing access to contraception for people who potentially have fewer resources available for raising children. Although the policy will provide access to long-term contraception for all female beneficiaries, the unstated target of the policy is probably teenagers.

Women who give birth during their teenage years are more likely than other women to drop out of high school, to remain unmarried, and to live in poverty. The children of teenage mothers also fare worse than other children on economic, social, and cognitive dimensions. It logically follows that if teen childbearing causes large adverse consequences, then the natural response is to consider policies that can potentially reduce the likelihood of a teen pregnancy: sex education, abstinence promotion, improved contraceptive access, and related interventions.

The problem is that it is not clear that teenage parenting is in itself a cause of these problems. A recent US study by Kearney and Levine [1] indicates that teen child bearing matters more because it is a marker of a social problem rather than being the underlying social problem itself. Instead it seems that it is women who lack economic opportunity that are more likely to give birth as a teen, and they and their children are likely to have inferior outcomes regardless of when they give birth.

Providing free contraception, for instance, could modestly reduce the likelihood of giving birth as a teen, but it does not alter the underlying cause that leads disadvantaged women to “drop out” of the mainstream path of completing school, investing in their human capital and putting marriage before motherhood.

Also cost does not appear to be a reason for not using contraceptives. Kearney and Levine present US evidence indicating that just 2% of teenage girls reporting having unprotected sex stated it was due to not being able to afford birth control.

The evidence collected in the US study indicates that women appear to get pregnant and have children while unmarried teenagers because their life prospects are diminished and hence they have an ambivalent attitude to youthful childbearing. The consequent teenage motherhood may actually have little further detrimental impacts for mother or child.

If price is not a major issue and at-risk women are ambivalent about either pregnancy or unmarried motherhood, then initiatives such as sex education and improved access to contraception are not likely to make a material difference for these disadvantaged women. Instead a more appropriate policy prescription would focus on improving economic opportunities and reducing the incidence of poverty, through policies such as early childhood education programmes and improved post-school education opportunities for at-risk young people.

Such policies are actually the prime focus of the government’s welfare reforms. These types of policies are difficult to design and implement, but their success will have more profound impacts on the lives of at-risk teenagers, and teenage parenthood will naturally decline as the teenagers will have active reasons for wanting to defer parenthood to later in life.



[1] Kearney, M. S., & Levine, P. B. (2012). Why is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States So High and Why Does It Matter? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(2), 141-166.

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