Leadership Interview: Isabel Sawhill, Ph.D., Brookings Institution

Isabel Sawhill, Ph.D., is the senior fellow in economic studies at the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. Sawhill has been researching and writing about the growth of single-parent families for more than 40 years. Her primary focus over the past 10 years has been research and policy to improve opportunities for disadvantaged children. Sawhill’s voice is featured in an upcoming RMHP issue brief about the economic benefits of long-acting reversible contraceptives. 
 
Ascent: In your most recent book, you identify two sets of parent types: “planners” and “drifters.” Tell me about these two groups of today’s parents. 
 
Sawhill: All of us are, at various times, planners and drifters in our lives generally, not just in respect to parenthood. A planner is very organized, keeps to-do lists, sets goals for themselves, and then adopts various practices to help them achieve those goals. A drifter is someone who simply takes life as it comes, accepting whatever outcomes that produces, and is somewhat more fatalistic—less likely to believe that they themselves can have a big impact on what happens to them. 
 
Most individuals are a mix of these two types. But where parenting is concerned, it’s quite important to be a planner. Accidents happen, but a child shouldn’t be one of them. It’s too important. And so the fact that roughly half the pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended is not a good story. We should change social norms about this. We should say to young people, “it’s great if you want to have children, but do think hard about when, if, and with whom you want to have children.” Because it will cast a long shadow, there’s no question about it. 
 
Sixty percent of births to unmarried women under the age of 30 are unintended, unplanned—the majority. That surprised even me. Many of these women are in a relationship with the father of the child at the time the baby is born, but those relationships tend to be very unstable. And so they break up and the mom becomes a single parent, and she faces all the struggles that single parents face, one of the most important being that she alone is responsible for everything—bringing in the income to the family, being the breadwinner—but also being the primary person responsible for the child and everything else in her life. 
 
This is in no way to disrespect single parents; they’re doing the best they can. But it’s a very hard road to have to go down.   
 
Ascent: How does unplanned pregnancy affect opportunities for future education and financial success—both for mother and child? 
 
Sawhill: In today’s economy, you need a lot more than just a high school degree to support a family. More people are going to college, or at least to community college and getting post-secondary training. If you suddenly have a child to take care of, continuing your education may not be practical or possible. Your job prospects become more constrained. Everything just gets a lot harder and less flexible. 
 
The research about the effects on children isn’t definitive, but it does suggest they don’t do as well as other children. Women who have unexpected births often get less prenatal care. They are more likely to have a low birthweight baby, and that can lead to health problems down the road. If parents are stressed out and not ready to be a parent, they’re more likely to be abusive or neglectful.
There are definitely some downstream adverse consequences for the children. Not in all cases, but statistically, it’s an added risk.
 
Ascent: What should be done in terms of government policy to turn the tide? 
 
Sawhill: We need to provide women with both the motivation and the means to be planners. First, we must create more educational and economic opportunities for less advantaged women. If you have a sense of opportunity in your future, you will be more planful. You will be more motivated to care about when you have children and who you have children with. That’s one reason why I think well-educated women are more likely to be better planners than less educated or more disadvantaged women. One of the reasons they plan is because they have more reasons to plan. They have more hope for their future.  
 
Second, the government should provide women with the means to achieve their goals, to plan for the future. That means access to birth control, especially the most effective forms of birth control.