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7 Public Policy and Reproductive Politicslocked

7 Public Policy and Reproductive Politicslocked

  • Rickie Solinger
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How do policies such as day-care funding and family leave shape women’s reproductive decisions?

Only p. 45about one in five US households has a male wage earner and a full-time female “homemaker.” In fact, women are the primary earners in 40 percent of American households and head 85 percent of single-parent households.1 Therefore, access to affordable day care has become a key factor in a woman’s decision to reproduce. Unlike most industrialized countries, the United States does not have a national child-care policy and provides very limited subsidized care for young children (or dependent elders). In fact, lower-income families typically pay 32 percent of their income on day care, making reproduction unaffordable for many.

A recent study of twenty-one countries with “high-income economies” found that the United States ranks twentieth in providing parental leave, with only twenty-four weeks of combined protected job leave for a two-parent family. In addition, it is one of only two countries in this group that offers no paid parental leave.2

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How have gender-based wage disparities intersected with reproductive politics?

American p. 46women who work full-time average 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. The disparity is even steeper when race and ethnicity are taken into account; for example, a Latina woman earns 52 cents for every dollar earned by a white non-Hispanic male. This means that the typical female worker makes about $10,000 a year less than the average male worker. Lower wages translate into lower unemployment benefits and major loss of income in retirement because of scantier savings and smaller pensions, thereby sustaining low income over time. Wage disparities, especially in combination with the lack of family leave benefits and child-care services, further compromise the ability of women to have children and support a family.3

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How have policies regarding drugs influenced reproductive politics?

Recent research has shown that legal chemical substances—alcohol and tobacco—are potentially more harmful to fetuses and much more commonly used by pregnant women than cocaine and other illegal drugs. Nevertheless, in the context of the ongoing “war on drugs”—in a society that provides very few treatment centers willing to accept pregnant drug users—the criminal justice system, along with family and drug courts, brings cases against largely poor, pregnant drug users by arguing for “fetal rights.” Consequently, many pregnant women have been detained, prosecuted, and incarcerated for harming their fetuses.4 Certainly pregnant women should avoid exposing their fetuses to all harmful substances. But we now have better information about the effects of drugs on fetuses than earlier; for example, national longitudinal studies show that claims in the 1980s about the impact of maternal cocaine use on fetuses were exaggerated and incorrect, and yet legislators continue to structure law enforcement work targeting low-income women who use opiates, but not users of other harmful substances of whatever social class.5

Advocates p. 47for pregnant women argue that when courts focus on protecting the fetus and criminalizing the mother, they actually further endanger maternal and fetal health by discouraging a pregnant, drug-using woman’s efforts to get proper treatment. Courts are in effect demanding that poor, addicted, pregnant women must provide their fetuses with health care, in the form of anti-drug therapy, even though this treatment is not available, and even if it were, these women could not afford to pay for it. Moreover, the focus on fetuses deflects political and policy attention from social crises such as this very lack of affordable medical care and the need for more programs to support pregnant and parenting women.

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How does the current national welfare policy affect reproductive politics?

In 1935, during the Great Depression, Title IV of the Social Security Act created the Aid to Dependent Children program, the country’s first federal effort to provide assistance for poor children. With various expansions and adjustments, this program, now known as “welfare,” gave cash assistance to poor mothers and their children. ADC (later, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) was an entitlement program that guaranteed cash benefits to all recipients whose income and resources were below state-determined eligibility levels, subject to federal guidelines and limits. Between 1935 and 1995, benefits to poor mothers and their children waxed and waned depending on the political status of “anti-poverty” initiatives at any given time. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon expanded welfare programs, for example, and President Ronald Reagan, in part by highlighting the number of African American recipients—in truth, always a minority of total recipients—and raising questions about the legitimacy of their claims to benefits, laid the political groundwork for terminating the AFDC program.6

In p. 48the mid-1990s, in an era of intensifying hostility toward public provision for the poor, President Bill Clinton famously directed Congress to “end welfare as we know it.” Congress replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a more restricted and restrictive non-entitlement form of support that gave the states enormous latitude to decide how to respond to poor families. Underscoring a new commitment to motherhood as an economic status, TANF guidelines say that no woman can receive benefits for herself and her minor children for more than five years during her life and that to receive benefits, a woman, including one who has recently given birth, must participate in a “work-activity” up to forty hours a week, more hours than any other group of new mothers works on average. Focusing eligibility on moral as well as economic grounds, the federal government, through TANF, expects states to develop programs that both discourage potential recipients from unmarried pregnancy and encourage marriage for recipients. Critics of these policies point out that poverty and new worldwide norms, not immorality, contribute to delayed marriage. Under TANF, states are spending less on cash assistance and more on education and training, child care, and other work supports to help families achieve self-sufficiency. This is a strategy designed for good economic times but one that leaves many unemployed heads of household without cash assistance during periods of high unemployment rates.

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How does policy governing foster care and other child-protective services affect reproductive politics?

The foster care system exists to provide alternate care settings for children who are victims of neglect and abuse within their current residences. Children of all races are equally likely to require foster care, but a significantly higher percentage of African American children are placed within this system than children of other races and ethnicities. Also, according to p. 49recent studies, the foster care option is extremely expensive, involving law enforcement, health care, judicial, and foster care system responses. Taking a child away from his or her family has been shown to trigger short- and long-term direct economic effects and emotional consequences for the nearly 300,000 children entering the system each year and their mostly poor parents.7

Critics argue that while the foster care option can be ­useful and in some cases is necessary, the system is harmed by federal funding mandates, which, in the child welfare arena, too often require that children be sent into foster care even when, with proper services, the original family might be preserved. For example, states can use only about 10 percent of federal funds dedicated to child welfare for family services and supports to avoid child removal, based on local guidelines. Research shows that if more public funds were devoted to family support, family strengthening, and family reunification services, the number of poor families that were broken up would diminish as would all categories of costs.8

In addition, middle-class parents are far less likely to come to the attention of child welfare officials than poor parents, even when their parenting behavior is potentially as dangerous or more dangerous to the welfare of the child. Current research shows that state child welfare directors report that cultural misunderstandings and other bias-driven problems encourage staff to remove children from their low-income birth parents, raising the issue of common presumptions about economic qualifications for parenthood.