Review: ‘Generation Unbound’ by Isabel Sawhill

• October 12, 2014 5:00 am


Articulating the belief of many conservatives, Senator Marco Rubio recently said that "the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage."

In her new book Generation Unbound, Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, agrees that marriage has shown itself over time to be the best environment in which to raise a family. But, as an institution, the nuclear family has been on the decline for well over a half-century now, the victim of revolutionary changes in the culture: the Pill, no-fault divorce, increased education for women changing religious norms, and economic factors.

Though "progress" has led to increased freedom of choice for individual adults, it has not necessarily been good for children.Over 40% of all children born in America are born outside of marriage. Of those, about three-quarters will experience what Sawhill refers to as the "family-go-round": instability, less parenting, fewer resources, and poorer physical and metal health because of absent fathers, parents with multiple partners, or a rotation of cohabiting partners.

Sawhill writes, "To reduce poverty we must slow down entries into poverty, not just speed up the exits." Her solution: Don’t let women drift into unplanned childbearing. Assist them with choosing the optimal time to care for a child: specifically, turn the "drifters" into planners through providing them with Long Acting Reversible Contraception.

Sawhill recommends subsidizing these long acting contraception options (or LARCs) because they do not depend on someone making a rational decision about the consequences of sex in an irrational state, like condoms do. Some LARCs can last up to 12 years, and are 20 times more reliable than the Pill—nine percent of birth control users becoming inadvertently pregnant each year. LARCs, like IUDs and implants, are not as commonly used since they are expensive, complicated, and controversial—some categorize them as abortifacients.

Sawhill argues that if we could reduce unplanned pregnancies, women would have more opportunities to pursue their education, land a decent career, and find a stable mate to eventually marry.

Advocating for females to plan, set goals, and pursue educational opportunities will undeniably aid in their economic success. However, "helping" women—especially underprivileged young women—to be better planners by implanting them with LARCs raises some concerns.

Aside from its obvious intrusiveness and its discomforting echoes of progressivism’s now-largely-forgotten fascination with eugenics, such an approach would ensure that none of the implantees or their partners would have to think about the potential outcomes of their sexual behavior. This consequence is connected to Sawhill’s broader agenda: largely delinking sex from pregnancy, in the hope that by allowing women to pursue their aspirations without fear of unplanned births, they will ultimately elect to be members of stable, two-parent families when the time is right.

But the link between reducing the rate of unplanned pregnancies and increasing the number of those getting married and subsequently having children in wedlock is far from clear. Traditionally, sex, childbearing, and marriage were elements of the same institution. How will effectively removing sex from the equation and making it even more consequence-free than it already is push people into stable relationships?

In any event, the delinking of sex and childbearing has already largely occurred. Implementing Sawhill’s idea would only accelerate the process we already witness, and which she says she wants to suppress: the surge in non-committed, far-from-permanent coupling.

Sawhill suggests the implantation of LARCs to combat what she sees as ignorant decisions. Another, less invasive solution for ignorance is education. Fertility education can empower women about when the body can naturally achieve or avoid pregnancy. Teaching young women in poverty how to plan their fertility, rather than simply fitting them with IUDs, is inexpensive and non-invasive, with no side effects. Fertility awareness is a method overlooked in this book perhaps because Sawhill sees humans as "weak-willed", "irresponsible", and "ignorant," and in need of medical intervention in order to become "planners".

Society needs to find the sweet spot where children and marriage are highly valued, and where the fleeting benefits of sexual pleasure are subordinated to more important personal and social goals. Sawhill is unenthusiastic about attempts to revive the institution of marriage popular among conservatives. But both government and civil society can and should help the prospects of married adults, and thus improve the attractiveness of the institution as a whole, by taking a hard line on requiring child support payments, reducing tax penalties for marriage, and helping men to be better economic providers.

Sawhill is right that stable, two-parent homes prevent children from slipping into poverty: but it is pro-family political and social reform, and not contraceptive implants, that will help maintain and repair the declining nuclear family, and thus fight the problem of poverty.

Published under: Book reviews