Study turns conventional wisdom about teen pregnancy and poverty on its head

Study turns conventional wisdom about teen pregnancy and poverty on its head

Conventional wisdom goes something like this: have a baby while you're a teen, and you're doomed to a life of poverty. Lower lifetime earnings, slim chance at higher education and a greater likelihood that your children will also have kids while they're in their teens.

But what if the conventional wisdom was backward? What if having a baby as a teen was a symptom of poverty, rather than the cause of it?

That's the theory behind economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine's research for the National Bureau of Economic Research. Their new work on the connection between teen birth and inequality shows that the greater the gap between the poor and the middle class in a region, the more likely a young woman is to opt out of a conventional education or career path and choose to have a baby while she's young.

It's what economists like Kearney and Levine call "lower-tail inequality." It's not the top 1 percent hoarding wealth that we hear so much about.

It's the difference between what the lowest earners make, compared to those at the middle.

How big that gap is also represents a society's mobility--how big of a jump to the next rung of the ladder says something about how likely it is that people will make the leap.

Kearney and Levine measured the ratio between the lowest 10 percent of households and the 50th percentile and compared that to the rate at which teen girls give birth, controlling for factors like the racial makeup of the population, education level and abortion regulations.

They found that for girls at the bottom, the more unequal their community is, the more likely they are to have a baby as a teen.

"Girls with low socioeconomic status--the daughters of high school drop-outs--are five percentage points more likely to give birth if they live in a state with high low-tail inequality," said Kearney.

Kearney said for girls with higher socioeconomic status--more middle or upper class young women--there's no difference in the rates of childbearing, whether they live in a place where the gap between the bottom and the middle is large or small.

I asked Kearney why she thinks that is, and while her study can't answer that question, she pointed to a lot of other sociological research about why girls choose to have a baby as a teen. The answer makes sense in light of their findings.

"The wider that gap is [to the next socioeconomic rung of the ladder] the more likely these young girls are to think, 'You know what? It's so unlikely that I'm going to get there, even if I play by the rules and stay in school,'" said Kearney. "There's less return to making that investment in education, in delaying motherhood. If you're on this low economic trajectory, there's not much cost in having a teen birth. You didn't anticipate going to college or getting married anyway."

Girls who live in a place with more economic opportunity have more to lose by having a baby.

"When the gap isn't so high, they might say, 'I want to do everything it takes to get up there. I'm really going to play by the rules and stay in school, invest in my own economic success," says Kearney.

That attitude may be behind another finding of the study: while the rate of poor girls who get pregnant was roughly the same everywhere, regardless of the income gap, the number who ended up delivering babies was lower in states with greater economic equality.

So, where does Illinois sit on this spectrum of inequality? Kearney and Levine calculated the ratio between the lowest 10 percent of earners compared to the median earners for every state and the District of Columbia.

The numbers range from a low of 3.41 for Utah, meaning Utah has the smallest gap between the poor and the middle class, to D.C. (5.88) and Louisiana (4.92), which have the highest rates of inequality.

Illinois falls on the list of states with the largest gaps, with a low-tail inequality ratio of 4.32.

Kearney and Levine have done their analysis on a county level as well, which made me wonder about the differences between counties when it comes to the gap between the poor and the middle class.

To do the analysis, I had to use the census' PUMS data, which stands for public use microdata sample data. It contains a host of detailed information on a sample of people from different districts, called PUMAs, for public use microdata sample area, from all over the state. Unfortunately, the way PUMAs are drawn, I could only analyze nine Illinois counties.

Here's what I found:

So, of the nine counties I analyzed, Cook County is the second highest when it comes to income inequality between the poor and the middle class.

Champaign county beats us pretty squarely, however, with an income ratio of 5.11. The lowest are Macon and DuPage counties, who are even more equal than the state of Utah when it comes to income ratio.

The study calls into question a couple of ideas we take for granted in society today--that being a teen mom makes you poor, and that we can fix the problem of teen births through strategies like contraception and sex education.

First, the idea that having a baby while she's a teen sets a young woman up for a life of poverty has been shot down by research.

Kearney and Levine's paper points to research that shows that young women who get pregnant and miscarry  have just as bleak of economic outcomes as those who carry their child to term.

Second, additional research they've done has shown the expansion of family planning services within Medicaid has had a positive impact on lowering teen pregnancy, but it has made only a small difference.

"For policies like those to work, girls need to want to avoid becoming pregnant," said Kearney.

"You actually have to change girls' opportunities and their outlook on life. You have to give them an alternative track, a reason to take different opportunities. It actually calls for much bigger and larger social and policy interventions," she added. "Those other things are necessary but not nearly sufficient--girls have to have access to contraception, but we need them to want to avoid having a baby when they're a teen.

"Interventions in early childhood education lead to lower rates in teen childbearing. Kids have a better start when they start school set up to be more successful. It improves their outlook on life," said Kearney. "Those are the kinds of policy interventions that are going to be more successful. The usual stuff of trying to mitigate the negative effects of poverty. That's what's needed."

Note: In the past two decades, the teen birth rate in the U.S. has fallen by more than 40 percent. While that's significant, even with that decline, our rate of teen childbearing is still skyhigh when compared with other developed countries. The U.S. teen birth rate is on par with countries like Romania, Turkey and Bulgaria. Kearney and Levine cite that American teen girls are 25 percent more likely to give birth than their Russian counterparts.

© Community Renewal Society 2012

Photo credit: Josh Parrish

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