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Blacks and the family cap: pregnancy, abortion, and spillovers


While reducing out-of-wedlock childbearing is a central goal of welfare reform, most policymakers prefer achieving this objective via a reduction in nonmarital pregnancy rates rather than through an increase in the incidence of abortion. Using aggregate state-level data from 1984 to 1998, I estimate fixed effects models that allow for autocorrelated and heteroskedastic disturbances to examine the association between the family cap and nonmarital birth, pregnancy, and abortion rates. I find robust evidence that the family cap is associated with a reduction in nonmarital birth rates, particularly among black women. This reduction is driven by a reduction in nonmarital pregnancy rates rather than through an increase in abortion or marriage rates. These findings suggest that that the stigmatizing effect of the family cap may influence the nonmarital pregnancy decisions of black women.

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  1. In 1999, Alabama, Washington, DC, Michigan, California, and Massachusetts were each awarded $20M under the “Bonus to Reward a Decrease in Illegitimacy.” In 2000, Alabama, Washington, DC, Michigan, Arizona, and Illinois won. In 2001, Alabama, Washington, DC, and Michigan were each awarded $25M.

  2. I also include a variable that captures whether border states have Medicaid funding restrictions for abortions. As in Blank et al. (1996), I use a weighted average of distances from the state’s capital to neighboring states’ capitals to capture effects of neighboring states’ policies on in-state pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates.

  3. I find no evidence that states’ adoption of a family cap or a parental involvement law impacts their decision to report abortions by age, marital status, or race.

  4. While the NCHS does not report data on abortions disaggregated by age and marital status, a few states do provide this information in the late 1990s. These data reflect that 97–99% of abortions to all teens are to unmarried teens. A similar problem exists when constructing the black nonmarital pregnancy rate. The NCHS does not provide abortion data by race and marital status. Hence, the measure of the number of pregnancies is upwardly biased to the extent that abortions to married women are included. However, a few states do provide data by race and marital status in the years 1997–1999. Ninety-one percent of blacks who obtained abortions in Pennsylvania during this period were unmarried. In Louisiana, that figure was 87%, and in Arkansas it was 90%.

  5. The denominator includes both married and unmarried women and is obtained from US Census estimates. The Current Population Survey provides some information on marital status, but these data are not representative by state; hence, they were not credible in constructing estimates of the state-specific nonmarital female population.

  6. Prior to 1997, 18 states adopted and enforced time limits on welfare receipt. Time limits became mandatory under PRWORA, with a maximum federal time limit of 5 years and a minimum time limit of 2 years. The minor teen parent living arrangement waiver was adopted by 14 states prior to 1996 and by almost all states following the passage of national welfare reform. This law prohibited an unmarried, minor custodial parent from receiving AFDC benefits unless she lived with a parent, legal guardian, or other adult relative. The school attendance and performance requirement—adopted by 24 states prior to 1996 and nearly all states (47) following PRWORA—required that children of welfare recipients attend school and perform well in order for the family to continue receiving AFDC benefits. This program is targeted at breaking the cycle of welfare dependence in families. Expansions in AFDC-UP were adopted by 27 states prior to 1997 and nearly all states by 1997. These expansions loosened welfare eligibility requirements, thereby allowing more married couples to qualify for benefits. Expansions in the wealth and income disregards were approved by 34 states prior to 1997 and were designed to reduce the disincentive to work by permitting welfare recipients to keep more of their earnings and wealth without having their welfare benefits reduced. Income disregard expansions became widespread following the passage of national welfare reform. During the 1990s, states began to more vigorously crack down on “deadbeat dads.” Prior to 1997, 12 states adopted policies that levied sanctions for noncompliance with child support establishment. Most of these sanctions reduced or cut off welfare benefits to unmarried women who refused to cooperate in the establishment of paternity. President Clinton championed this policy as a central feature of the 1996 welfare reform bill. Finally, over the 1984–1996 period, 37 states adopted stricter work requirements for welfare recipients. These requirements eliminated many of the previous exceptions to state work requirements. Strict work requirements were mandatory after the passage of PRWORA.

  7. Several states require a minor to obtain parental consent or parental notification before an abortion is performed. Parental consent laws require at least one parent to sign a legal waiver for her daughter to obtain an abortion. Parental notification laws require at least one parent to be informed that her daughter will be obtaining an abortion. A state has a binding parental involvement law if the state government enforces a consent or notification law, and the courts have not enjoined the law.

    Second, many states ban the use of Medicaid funding for abortions, though in some states, such laws have been overturned by court order. Following the passage of the Hyde Amendment in the mid-1970s, Medicaid funding restrictions have become quite common.

    Ten states require women to wait a specified length of time—usually 24 h and sometimes 48 h—before an abortion is performed. Often, these waiting periods are accompanied by state-directed counseling, which provides women with information on alternatives to abortion such as adoption.

  8. None of the other policy variables were significant.

  9. Analyses using HRP waiver definitions produce similar results as those presented in Tables 5 and 6. Moreover, analyses using the functional form chosen by HRP also produce similar results. Moreover, models that shorted the length of the panel from 1990 to 1998 also produced similar results.

  10. Note that the sum of the marginal effects of the family cap on birth rates and abortion rates does not equal the marginal effect of the policy on pregnancy rates. One explanation for the lack of “adding up” is random error. A second is that pregnancy data are measured with error. A third is that the birth, pregnancy, and abortion regressions are not all run on the same sample. Birth data by marital status (and race) is available from every state over the period 1984–1998. As noted in the data section, one limitation of abortion data by marital status (and race) is that the CDC began publishing these data in 1989 and not all states reported. Hence, the samples for the pregnancy and abortion equations are substantially smaller than for the birth equations, leading to estimates that may not “add up” across equations.

  11. The nonmarital postteen pregnancy rate cannot be credibly estimated, since abortions are not reported by age and marital status, and the proportion of abortions to married postteens is significantly larger than the proportion of abortions to married teens.

  12. The magnitude and significance of the coefficients on the family cap are robust to various specifications. For example, a model including a shortened panel (1990–1998) that allowed for fewer years prior to the first family cap being adopted (1992) produced similar results.


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I am grateful to Ann Horvath-Rose for her work in collecting much of the policy and socioeconomic data used in this paper, Liz Peters for her guidance, and Don Kenkel for his suggestions. Special thanks to J.S. Butler and Andrew Sfekas for their econometric advice. I would also like to thank two anonymous referees for their comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Joseph J. Sabia.

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Table 7 Definitions of dependent variables
Table 8 Data sources

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Sabia, J.J. Blacks and the family cap: pregnancy, abortion, and spillovers. J Popul Econ 21, 111–134 (2008).

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  • Family cap
  • Abortion
  • Welfare reform

JEL Classification

  • J13
  • I38
  • J18