Jason DeParle has a long article in The New York Times on how single motherhood is expanding in the American middle class and bringing financial troubles along with it. He focuses on two friends who work together at a daycare center: “They are both friendly white women from modest Midwestern backgrounds who left for college with conventional hopes of marriage, motherhood and career.”

One of the women, Chris Faulkner, “did standard things in standard order: high school, college, job, marriage and children,” and she is now leading a comfortable middle-class existence.

The other woman, Jessica Schairer, is a single mother of three, trying to get by making just under $25,000 a year, supplemented by food stamps. She did not do things in standard order: “She got pregnant during her first year of college, left school and stayed in a troubled relationship that left her with three children when it finally collapsed six years ago.”

DeParle tells these women’s stories and puts them in context with data about larger social trends, but what jumped out at me is something that he didn’t mention at all: contraception, or a lack thereof.

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Schairer didn’t intend to get pregnant in college, and if that pregnancy had been avoided, her life might have turned out very differently and she might not now be teetering on the edge of poverty. Unlike women in, say, rural Uganda, she could have gotten her hands on birth control, as could have her partner. She bears responsibility for her situation, and she acknowledges that. “I’m in this position because of decisions I made,” she said.

But society also failed her. If so many young women like Schairer are getting pregnant accidentally, then we as a country are doing something really wrong — doing lots of things wrong, actually. Sex ed in our schools is too often crappy or nonexistent. Reliable birth control can be hard to get ahold of and afford. Our whole culture is at once saturated with sex and at the same time afraid of having of having honest conversations about it. Add all that up and the result is that almost half of the nation’s 6 million-plus pregnancies each year are unintended.

Imagine if it became normal for young women in America, when they become sexually active, to start using a long-acting form a contraception — an IUD (they’re making a comeback!) or a patch or a ring or a shot, something you don’t have to think about every day — until/unless they decide they want to have kids. (Yes, they should still use condoms too.) Obama’s healthcare act will help make this more achievable; starting this August, most insurance plans will be required to cover the full cost of birth control. But it’ll take more than changing the rules; we need to change the culture too.

Melinda Gates is getting lots of press for her high-profile campaign to make contraception widely available throughout the developing world. It’s well established that family planning can help fight poverty in poorer countries.

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But we could use some big-name spokespeople for the contraceptive cause right here at home — and more journalists willing to connect the dots between reproductive health and financial health.

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