Monday, September 28, 2015

Contraception is a terrible solution for poverty

Pope Francis's visit to the US - and the reminder of the Catholic church's position on contraception - has revived another round of hand-wringing from liberals about poor people and their occasional fondness for babies. The standard position is that we should expand contraception access for the poor. Liberals generally argue for this by insisting that poor people should be free to choose to not have children, a point that seems fair enough, though since free contraception is already widely available and since 89% of the poor are already using it, one wonders why liberals would consider this a significant problem in the US.

What's telling is that instead of abandoning this factually trivial concern, liberals have found a new reason to worry about poor-people baby-having. Even more telling, they're cribbing this one from Libertarians. Adam Ozimek:
Superficially, the arithmetic seems to check out: the total poor minus children born into poverty would seem to equal fewer poor. But as with the concern about inaccessibility, this rationale also collapses under minimal scrutiny. Put simply, since poverty has to be measured over time, Ozimek's proposal cannot compete with almost any alternative that actually decelerates poverty at all. The model here is completely straightforward:


Assuming that it isn't offset by any related increases in poverty elsewhere (a non-trivial assumption), contraception can at least give you a one-time shot of poverty reduction. For a moment, this might seem superior to many of the alternatives. But move forward in time and it quickly becomes obvious that the short-term reduction is beat by just about any policy that continually shrinks poverty over time.

This may be a simplistic model, but that's just because it demonstrates the failure of a simplistic argument. Ozimek can try to salvage his argument with additional assumptions - but he can only do so by defending those assumptions and abandoning his "any subtraction is good" rhetoric. So for example, he could argue that hereditary poverty is the lynchpin of all poverty and that once you get rid of it simply goes away, though that (not uncommon libertarian) position would then have to deal with the standard scientific rebuttal LOL.

There may be good reasons to support contraception funding, but poverty reduction is not one of them. Any solution that aspires to even the most minimal decelerative effect on poverty is potentially superior - and that's the sort of solution you get by looking for root causes. That sort of focus, of course, will always make liberals, libertarians, and other flavors of capitalist uncomfortable, for obvious reasons.