Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Poverty, Inequality, and Teenage Motherhood

Everybody knows that girls who embark on single motherhood before they graduate from high school do badly in life. But is that because they had children young, or because the sort of girls who do that are in trouble anyway?

Some new research argues quite persuasively that teenage motherhood is a symptom of poverty more than a cause, and that inequality makes the problem even worse. Via Matt Yglesias, Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine conclude
that “being on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried and that poor outcomes seen later in life (relative to teens who do not have children) are simply the continuation of the original low economic trajectory.” In other words, it is a mistake to the leap from the observation that women who gave birth as teenagers are poor to the view that they’re poor because they gave birth. . . . Women with better economic opportunities tend to do a good job of avoiding childbirth.

Kearney and Levine used data on miscarriages to isolate the impact of giving birth from background characteristics that may contribute to a decision to give birth. When used this way as a statistical control, the negative consequences of teen childbirth appear to be small and short-lived. Young women who gave birth and young women who miscarried have similarly bleak economic outcomes.  Similarly, when you compare teen mothers not to the general population but to their own sisters who aren’t teen moms “the differences are quite modest.”
The researchers also discovered that very few policies appear to affect teen birth rate, including abortion policies and sex ed. (Although stingier welfare benefits do appear to cut birthrates a bit.)
What does influence teen birth rates? Money and education. Poor girls in poor communities are more likely to give birth, especially when their mothers have little education.
Even more interesting is the way that economic inequality amplifies nonmarital births to teen moms. In particular, “women with low socioeconomic status have more teen, nonmarital births when they live in higher-inequality locations, all else equal.” The measure of inequality used here is not the fabled gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, but the gap between the median income and incomes at the 10th percentile. It measures, in other words, the gap between poor people and the local typical household. It may be a proxy for how plausible it would be for a girl from a low-income household to rise into the middle class. The more difficult that rise seems, the more births there are to unmarried teens.
So if you want to reduce teen pregnancy, forget about sex education and focus on providing jobs for poor girls. And the influence of inequality on teen pregnancy is just another one of the many, many ways that perceived unfairness impacts our lives.

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