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Study: Birth control use varies by social class

Contraceptive decisions appear linked to unmarried pregnancy rates

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A new study of couples living together unmarried finds that the working class and the middle class have significantly different attitudes and approaches toward birth control, helping to explain why unwed births are far less common among the college-educated than their less-educated counterparts.


“The working class more often become pregnant while in cohabitation, and the middle class rarely do,” says researcher Amanda Miller, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Indianapolis.

According to interviews conducted by Miller and colleague Sharon Sassler of Cornell University, cohabiting couples in the middle class (generally defined by being college graduates) are more likely to discuss contraception, use effective methods consistently, use two or more methods simultaneously and view childbearing as a part of a greater sequence of events in their lives.

On the other hand, working-class couples (generally defined as those with only a high school diploma or some college), more often skipped contraception or relied on less-effective methods. Many noted that cost, access and simple forgetfulness were major barriers to consistent use of contraceptives, even though very few intended to become pregnant.

The proportion of U.S. children born to unmarried parents recently surpassed 40 percent, prompting concern because those children are thought to be at higher risk for various emotional, social and health issues. Social scientists point out, however, that poverty is probably a far greater factor than marital status in causing those problems.

The study, “‘We’re Very Careful …’: The Fertility Desires and Contraceptive Behaviors of Cohabiting Couples,” is published in the October issue of Family Relations. The results of the qualitative study come from in-depth interviews with 30 working-class and 31 middle-class cohabiting couples. The authors asked about readiness for parenthood, contraceptive use and agreement on childbearing plans and contraception.

Generally speaking, the middle-class couples were more likely to plan their lives meticulously, often in a sequence from college graduation to cohabitation to marriage, and then children, Miller says. Many noted their belief that enjoying life as newlyweds was very important to the relationship process.

“The idea that you should spend some time together as a couple before having children was almost exclusive to the middle class,” she says.

Middle-class couples tended to be more concerned that an unplanned pregnancy would expose them to family disapproval or interfere with education or career plans. Also, Miller points out, they are more likely to have opportunities — such as enjoying recreational travel or planning elaborate weddings — that provide an incentive to delay childbearing.

“I would be devastated” by a pregnancy, one woman said. “I would not fit in my wedding dress, and I would not get to have my honeymoon, and I would not get to play, and I would not get to go on for my master’s and I would not get to do all the stuff that I want to do.”

Among the working class, economic issues seemed to affect the results in multiple ways. Not only were those respondents more likely to express concerns about the cost and logistics of scheduling medical appointments and obtaining contraceptives, but they also were generally less optimistic about the future and more prone to fatalistic attitudes about the possibility of having children.

One positive finding, Miller notes, is that men of both social classes are taking an active role in traditionally female-typed contraception, helping pay for contraceptive patches or setting a cell-phone reminder for their girlfriends to take birth control pills.

“When couples are on the same page, they’re more likely to be able to achieve their desired goals,” Miller says “For most, that involves delaying pregnancy.”