Expert Commentary

Unintended pregnancy and taxpayer spending

2011 study in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health calculating that unintended pregnancies cost taxpayers as much as $12.6 billion a year.

In 2006, the median rate of unintended pregnancies in the United States was 51 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, with the rates in most states varying between 40 and 65 per 1,000 women. Although much of the political controversy around family planning, sex education and abortion policy focuses on moral claims, the economics of pregnancy in the United States can provide another perspective from which to frame these issues.

A 2011 study from the Brookings Institution’s Center on Children and Families, “Unintended Pregnancy and Taxpayer Spending,” analyzes data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), the Census Bureau’s Medicaid Undercount Project and the National Governors Association to estimate national-level taxpayer spending on unintended pregnancies. The article, published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, calculates minimum, average, and maximum annual government spending on unintended pregnancies, as well as estimating the public savings that would result from preventing them.

The researchers state: “In measuring direct taxpayer spending on unintended pregnancy, we focus on Medicaid-financed medical care for eligible women whose unintended pregnancies result in births, fetal losses and abortions, and on medical care financed through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for eligible infants up to a year old who were conceived unintentionally…. We measure total taxpayer spending on each outcome by estimating its incidence in 2001 (the most recent year for which we have complete data) and its average per-incident cost.”

The study’s findings include:

  • Almost half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended and medical costs for births resulting from an unintended pregnancy are about twice as likely to be publicly financed as are medical costs for intended births.
  • About 1.25 million unintended pregnancies were publicly financed in 2001. Medical services for women who experience unintended pregnancies and the children who are born as a result of such pregnancies cost taxpayers between $9.6 and $12.6 billion every year ($7,700 to $10,000 per pregnancy).
  • Unplanned pregnancies are far more likely to result in abortion than are intended pregnancies (40% versus 3%).
  • Public savings that would result from preventing unintended pregnancies range from $4.7 to $6.2 billion.
  • The researchers’ average estimate of annual savings ($5.6 billion) “is more than three-quarters the level of federal funding for either the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children ($7.25 billion) or the Head Start and Early Head Start programs ($7.23 billion).”

The researchers conclude that “unintended pregnancy likely represents a substantial cost to taxpayers, draining already tight federal and state budgets.” They encourage curbing unintended pregnancy using “well-crafted, evidence-based policies, such as comprehensive teenage pregnancy prevention programs, expansions in subsidized family-planning services and media campaigns encouraging contraceptive use.” They note that, although these initiatives will require a short-term investment to set up, they would provide significant savings to taxpayers in the long run.

Tags: women and work, children, youth

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