Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) recently advanced a deficit-neutral proposal to replace the current Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Child Tax Credit, and cash welfare for families with a reformed EITC that is more favorable to marriage, as well as a child allowance providing almost every family in America a monthly check for each kid they have (up to five). It’s a proposal that, as I’ve elaborated at length elsewhere, checks all the boxes conservatives usually look for in family and welfare policy: encouraging work, encouraging marriage, supporting families, moving away from cash welfare (i.e. abolishing the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program), etc.
But one feature of Romney’s proposal has been critically under-billed: the extremely high likelihood that it would reduce the abortion rate. The impact of a child allowance on abortion is crucial as conservatives navigate complex questions about what effect child allowance will have on child well-being, marriage, single parenthood, and overall fertility.
How Child Allowances Reduce Abortion Rates
There are three components of Romney’s plan that might each be individually expected to reduce the number of conceptions that end in abortion. In combination, they are likely to save thousands of unborn children’s lives every year.
First, Romney’s plan will begin to provide child allowances to mothers midway through their pregnancy. By providing benefits during precarious early months of parenthood, the proposal will help expectant parents to navigate the challenges of pregnancy with less financial worry. This is significant, because over 70 percent of women seeking abortions report financial reasons as part of why, and about a quarter say they’re the primary reason for getting an abortion. Providing a child allowance in utero would serve as a public recognition of that child’s life, and support parents who choose not to end that life.
Second, the combined effects of the reforms to various tax provisions unambiguously improve the tax- and benefit-treatment of marriage. Marriage penalties in public programs are one reason marriage rates have declined so much in the last few decades; taking a stab at rolling back those penalties may help boost the marriage rate slightly. This is important, because abortions make up about 5 percent of combined births and abortions among married women, but 33 percent of comparably estimated conceptions among unmarried women. The bonds of marriage help assure mothers of stable help in raising a child, and so reduce the odds a conception ends in abortion. The same survey cited above found that about half of women reported the lack of suitable, supportive, or stable partners as a reason for getting an abortion, with about ten percent giving this as the primary reason. In many cases, women already have partners whom they might like to marry, and thus “lock in” greater stability for the future, but marriage is made too costly by tax penalties. By helping more couples overcome government-induced penalties to marriage, Romney’s plan will alleviate this motive for abortion.
Finally, cash transfers directly reduce abortions. Three key academic studies have tested this in interesting natural experiments: one using a child allowance program in Spain, one using a baby bonus in the Friuli-Veneto region of Italy, the other using changes in the enforcement of child support in US states. Both studies found the same thing: when mothers get more financial support for childbearing (whether via a direct cash benefits, as in Spain or Italy, or through more reliable and steady child support checks, as in the US example), they are far less likely to pursue abortion. Indeed, reduced abortions accounted for nearly 20 percent of the resulting increase in births after Spain implemented its baby bonus. In Italy, abortions fell by more than births rose: the entire effect on fertility was through reduced abortions.
The even larger effect was on daycare use: it fell by half for families with newborns after the baby bonus, suggesting that it successfully helped to encourage more parents to spend time at home with their infants and dedicate attention to rearing them.
A Closer Look at the Data
I was curious whether these effects would generalize more widely, so I assembled a panel model of 34 mostly high-income countries for which I could find data on abortion ratios, government spending on child and family benefits from the OECD family database, abortion legislation through historical searches from legal changes in each country, and basic control variables like the teen pregnancy rate. I also used standard model specifications common to this kind of analysis: fixed effects for country and year, controlling for unobserved variation due to long-term country traits or widely-shared economic or technological changes, and country-specific linear time trends to control for the long-run trends in abortion rates that might be unrelated to specific policies. The results are fairly intuitive, and shown in the figure below.
Control variables all have various obvious effects. More teen pregnancy is associated with more abortion. Likewise, higher child mortality is associated with more abortion: as parents see worse conditions for children in society, abortion rates rise. Likewise, when real purchasing power falls, such as in a recession, abortion rates rise.
The policy variables are perhaps more interesting. I found that when government support per child rises by about 5 percent of GDP per capita (in the United States, this would mean offering a new $3,500 annual child allowance on top of the child tax credit), the share of births plus abortions made up by abortions usually falls by about 1 percentage point. This estimate taken from dozens of countries’ data fits the Spanish case to a T: my model suggests the abortion ratio should have fallen by about 2.3 percentage points in response to how generous Spain’s program was. In reality, it fell by 2.5 percentage points.
These effects may seem small, but in the United States, a one-percentage-point decline in the abortion ratio would imply 40,000 fewer abortions: 40,000 more babies born. This would reduce the number of abortions by nearly 5 percent.
It’s difficult to predict exactly how much of an effect Romney’s plan would have: he provides a generous child allowance, but much of it is funded by reducing other benefits for kids. On the other hand, the plan provides more benefits to families at the lower end of the income spectrum, who may be more inclined toward abortion to begin with. The true number is probably less than a one percent decline in the abortion ratio. However, in recent years, the long decline in the abortion ratio has stalled out: the share of conceptions ending in abortions has begun to rise again, at least as of 2018, the latest data. Thus, while Romney’s proposal may be incremental, it comes at time when it is much-needed.
It’s worth noting that the data I used included estimates of women who got abortions outside their home countries in cases where abortion was not locally legal (such as Ireland, until recently). As a result, I can reasonably estimate the effect of making abortion illegal on abortion ratios.
Typical abortion ratios range from 15 to 30 percent, but changing from abortion-on-demand to making abortion illegal only tends to change abortion ratios by about 2 to 9 percent, suggesting that making abortion illegal does not fully eliminate abortion. But while abortion may not be fully eliminated by legally restricting it, abortion ratios do tend to rise by about 2 to 6 percent within a few years of liberalizing abortion, whereas when abortion restrictions are put in place, the rate tends to fall by a similar amount. In other words, while a large child allowance is certainly not as effective at reducing abortions as abolishing legal abortion would be, it can make a significant dent.
Strikingly, when I split my model into countries with more or less restrictive laws about abortion, it suggests that financial support for moms yields the largest reduction in abortions in countries with the fewest restrictions on abortion. In other words, it is especially important to provide financial support to moms in countries where abortion is legal.
Is Discouraging Single Parenthood Really More Important Than Reducing Abortion?
There is, of course, a conservative objection to Romney’s proposal. Even some conservative senators who favor other proposals to provide more financial support for families and childbearing, like Marco Rubio or Romney’s Utah colleague Mike Lee, have come out against a full child allowance. The argument offered is generally that such a plan will discourage work and subsidize single parenthood. While this argument may seem unrelated to the child allowance’s effect on abortion, it turns out that these questions are one and the same. Understanding why takes some explanation.
I won’t argue against the work discouragement argument: providing parents more income when they have kids will reduce employment. As I said, Spain’s program dramatically reduced daycare spending. It also reduced how many moms were in the workforce, at least in the short run; long run effects were smaller. But it just isn’t clear to me why conservatives should be bothered by this.
If we provide families with money to defray the costs of the socially valuable task of reproducing human civilization, why would we then be upset that one of the parents stayed home to rear their children? Since when was it a conservative objective to maximize how many kids were in daycare? Is it helping the family to oppose a policy that yields marginally more stay-at-home-parents?
Conservatives who say that a child allowance will reduce work are correct. It will yield somewhat fewer Uber drivers, Amazon warehouse workers, and cashiers at Arby’s, and more parents at home raising their own kids. Losing some lower-wage, easily automated work in order to get more parenting—a task we cannot automate and of which there is a dire shortage—is a trade any conservative should be happy to make. Besides, because the Earned Income Tax Credit pays out thousands of dollars a year for low-income workers, that “low-wage work” often gets as large a taxpayer subsidy, or larger, than the child allowance would provide. It’s not clear to me how it’s better for a family to be dependent on the dole and their manager at Walmart than it is to subsidize their raising a child.
It’s easy to see this for married couples. Surely no conservative is opposed to more married spouses choosing to stay home with their kids. The question of single parenthood is dicier. Subsidizing a single parent to stay out of work raises the hackles of many conservatives. And for good reason: if Romney’s plan really would yield more unstable and separated households, with more children growing up in environments that don’t position them for success in life, that really would be concerning.
But this is where it’s important to think about the childbearing decisions families actually face, and how abortion fits into the question of work, marriage, parenthood, and programs for children. It’s hard to understand why conservatives should not worry about this problem of possible single parenthood too much without grasping the alternatives parents have.
The Decisions Parents Actually Face
There are basically two ways a child allowance could cause more single parenthood: 1) by discouraging women who would already be having children from getting married, or 2) by encouraging women who are not married to have children. Option 1) is unlikely, since Romney’s plan provides more generous treatment of marriage. There’s no rational argument that Romney’s plan will discourage marriage.
That leaves option 2: could a child allowance encourage women who are not married to have more kids? There are basically three ways this could happen:
- More sex
- Less contraception
- Less abortion
I don’t think anybody would argue that offering a child allowance would uniquely cause single women to have more sex; that seems a bit farfetched. That leaves contraception and abortion. It’s possible a child allowance could shift contraceptive use. But since large shares of births to single women are unintended, it would be odd for a child allowance to primarily operate through yielded more intended births, as a conscious reduction in contraceptive use would imply. This effect is plausible, but it seems unlikely to be the entire effect. And remember, we already know that changing financial benefits to childbearing alters abortion rates. That’s what the academic studies cited above directly demonstrated. Thus, while we can’t say that the entire “single parenthood” effect is driven by abortion, we can absolutely say that at least some of it is.
In other words, to the extent that a child allowance increases single parenthood, it does so at least partly by reducing abortion. Single moms are more likely to get abortions. Reducing abortions logically implies more single moms having babies. Now, Romney’s plan also provides inducements to facilitate marriage for these new parents, which may limit the extent to which these births are actually to “single” moms. But it’s true: when you prevent abortions, you get more single parents.
Abortion Is Not an Acceptable Anti-Poverty Policy
The simple reality is that conservatives arguing that a rise in single parenthood is an unacceptable cost of a child allowance are necessarily arguing, as a corollary, that some of those children instead being aborted is an acceptable cost of the current policy regime. There’s no way to escape the fact that reducing abortion would yield higher single parenthood. If every aborted child were in fact born, the share of births to married moms would be just 51 percent, instead of the current rate of about 60 percent.
It’s difficult to imagine that anyone who thinks abortion is murder could justify such a trade-off. If abortion is murder, then keeping single parenthood down by murdering the infants is surely not an optimal anti-poverty policy. For those of us mourning every life lost to abortion, it seems fairly obvious that, whatever the social ills of widespread single parenthood, the social ills of widespread abortion are worse.
This is no slander on people who prioritize the challenges single parenthood causes for parents or children: many truly do place a lower emphasis on the issue of abortion, or may be unconvinced or unaware that financial benefits for childbearing reduces abortions. Furthermore, many programs designed to support kids are designed without regard for their effects on marriage, and so can discourage marriage, yielding direct harms for kids who would have been born under either policy regime. But the Romney proposal simultaneously encourages marriage and provides childbearing benefits that support parents who bring their pregnancy to term instead of aborting. Those of us who are deeply concerned about abortion should be enthusiastically on board.
The logical course forward for pro-life advocates is simple: support a child allowance like the one Romney has proposed. It is likely to reduce abortion, and also provides better treatment of marriage, ameliorating some of the effects of any possible increase in single parenthood. As abortions decline in number, the political constituency supporting abortion providers may get weaker, and political action to directly curtail abortions may become easier. Even if Roe is overturned, it will be a heavy legislative lift to change abortion laws in every state. Without this strategy, legal restrictions on abortion will struggle to actually reduce abortion. Mail-order mifepristone will replace Planned Parenthood, and the unborn will still be unborn.
Only by actually supporting being born can conservatives make lasting headway pushing abortion rates down to zero. Romney’s child allowance proposal is a much-needed step in that direction.