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Which Comes First: Poverty or Teen Pregnancy?

There’s a new paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives that says teen girls don’t become poor because they have babies. Instead, they have babies because they are poor.

The study concludes that for young women in the United States “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, being stuck in the cycle of poverty is a risk factor for teen birth.

The study also indicates that young women growing up in areas of significant income inequality are even more likely to become mothers in their teens. According to an analysis in Slate:

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.

This study is interesting because it follows young women who had miscarriages as well as those who gave birth. By isolating pregnancy and the intention to give birth and separating it from the outcome of birth, researchers were able to track the economic outcomes for those who were raising children as teens from those weren’t but would have been absent miscarriage. The economic outcomes for the two groups were strikingly similar. Also similar were the outcomes for young women who had children in their teens and their sisters who did not.

All of this leads me to rethink all of the long-standing arguments about how to prevent teen parenthood. If socioeconomic status is a greater risk factor than lack of access to contraception or education about sex and contraception, then we have an even bigger problem than we thought. Getting information and condoms into the hands of teens is a far simpler situation than solving the issue of systemic poverty. To remedy that, we have to do a lot of societal soul-searching and a commit to doing more than arguing about tax-breaks and abstinence. Until we roll up our sleeves and dig down to the root of poverty, we’re just going to see the continuation of the status quo.

Read more from Rebekah at Mom-in-a-Million, The DC MomsThe Broad Side
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