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Experts warn overturning Roe would hit poor people hardest

Protesters are seen outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 3, 2022 after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade later this year.
Greg Nash
Protesters are seen outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 3, 2022 after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade later this year.

Experts say overturning Roe v. Wade would likely have a disproportionate impact on lower-income households and people of color, warning the most vulnerable Americans stand to bear outsized costs from added barriers to abortion access. 

Policymakers in Washington are also sounding the alarm. 

“I believe that eliminating the right of women to make decisions about when and whether to have children would have very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday. 

A leaked draft of a majority opinion last week showed the Supreme Court poised to overturn the right to an abortion almost 50 years after recognizing it. Doing so would leave decisions on whether to limit or ban abortions up to states, which experts warn will hit poor people, with fewer resources to travel for access to the procedure, the hardest. 

“A Roe reversal is going to create a situation that dramatically increases inequality and abortion access,” said Caitlin Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College who specializes in research on the effects of reproductive policies. 

The abortion advocacy group Guttmacher Institute counts nearly two dozen states with legislation that could be used to curtail access, more than half of which have so-called trigger laws that would take effect swiftly in the event Roe is repealed.

“About half of U.S. women of reproductive age live in those states,” said Myers, who has consulted with the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood on abortion lawsuits in the past. 

“What I predict is likely to happen is that about three-quarters of the women who want abortions are still going to find a way to get out and reach a provider, and about a quarter of the women who want abortions won’t,” Myers said. “So, we’ll be talking about a situation where the primary population that is going to be affected by this is a population of low-income women, many of whom are already mothers.” 

A study released by the Brookings Institution in 2015 found that low-income people were more than five times as likely to have an unintended birth as affluent people, and data gathered in the Guttmacher Institute’s 2014 Abortion Patient Survey found the percentage of abortion patients living below the federal poverty line had increased from 42 to 47 percent since 2008. 

Some economists additionally pointed to years of research documenting the effects childbirth can have on a person’s labor force participation, income and education.  

“The more resources you have at your disposal, the more second chances you have. … But the fewer resources you have available, the more this could make a huge difference,” David Slusky, an economics professor at the University of Kansas, said. 

A study conducted across five years at the University of California involving interviews with nearly 1,000 women who sought abortions between 2008 and 2010 found that those denied abortions were more likely to experience economic hardship and insecurity.  

And, said Jason Lindo, an economics professor at Texas A&M University, limiting abortion access can have effects that last for generations within a family. 

“There are likely to be effects on these women’s families, including their partners, and also including their children,” Lindo said.  

Growing up in a lower-income family, Lindo said, can lead to long-term “implications for children, including ramifications for their education and their adult earnings and many other things that we might think of as being measures of economic or social success.” 

“And that tells us, I think, that whatever government programs that we have, and of course we do have many, they are not large enough in magnitude to close that gap,” Lindo added. “So despite the social safety net that we do have, these children still suffer effects of growing up in more disadvantaged households.” 

A 1997 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper estimated “the marginal child who was not born due to legalization would have been 70 percent more likely to live in a single parent family, 40 percent more likely to live in poverty, 50 percent more likely to receive welfare, and 35 percent more likely to die as an infant.” 

“These selection effects imply that the legalization of abortion saved the government over $14 billion in welfare expenditures through 1994,” the paper also read. 

Research from the Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy found earlier this year that the monthly child poverty rate reached 17 percent in January, up 4.9 percent from the previous month, following the lapse of the expanded child tax credit. The largest rises were seen among Latino and Black children, the study found. 

While some experts say rolling back abortion rights could knock people out of the labor force, Rachel Greszler, a senior research fellow on budget and entitlements at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, pushed back in an interview on arguments that a Roe reversal would cost the economy. 

“We have already a declining fertility rate in the U.S., especially in the last couple of years,” Greszler, whose work focuses on retirement and labor policy, said, “and that’s led to people saying, ‘Hey, this is really bad for the economy, and it’s especially bad for the future.’ ”  

“When we look at the fact that we have a huge labor shortage today, you can’t help but point out the fact that, well, 63 million babies have been aborted since the Roe decision was made, and those are individuals who would potentially be in the labor force today contributing to economic output and also would be taxpayers,” Greszler said. 

However, others have countered similar arguments pointing to areas like immigration policy.    

“Remember, there are millions of people around the world already educated at someone else’s expense who want to move toward the United States,” Slusky, of the University of Kansas, said. “So I think that if we wanted more workers, we could start with people who already exist in other parts of the world who want to work in the United States.” 

And, Texas A&M’s Lindo argued, a “bigger economy itself is also not always desirable,” noting “more people does typically mean higher GDPs, but it does not necessarily mean higher GDP per capita, which I think most people would say is a better measure of the overall health of an economy.”

Tags abortion rights Health care Janet Yellen Low income Policy Roe Roe v Wade

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