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Why Is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States So High and Why Does It Matter?

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  • Melissa S. Kearney
  • Phillip B. Levine

Abstract

Why is the rate of teen childbearing is so unusually high in the United States as a whole, and in some U.S. states in particular? U.S. teens are two and a half times as likely to give birth as compared to teens in Canada, around four times as likely as teens in Germany or Norway, and almost ten times as likely as teens in Switzerland. A teenage girl in Mississippi is four times more likely to give birth than a teenage girl in New Hampshire—and 15 times more likely to give birth as a teen compared to a teenage girl in Switzerland. We examine teen birth rates alongside pregnancy, abortion, and "shotgun" marriage rates as well as the antecedent behaviors of sexual activity and contraceptive use. We demonstrate that variation in income inequality across U.S. states and developed countries can explain a sizable share of the geographic variation in teen childbearing. Our reading of the totality of evidence leads us to conclude that being on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried. Teen childbearing is explained by the low economic trajectory but is not an additional cause of later difficulties in life. Surprisingly, teen birth itself does not appear to have much direct economic consequence. Our view is that teen childbearing is so high in the United States because of underlying social and economic problems. It reflects a decision among a set of girls to "drop-out" of the economic mainstream; they choose nonmarital motherhood at a young age instead of investing in their own economic progress because they feel they have little chance of advancement.

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File URL: http://www.aeaweb.org/articles.php?doi=10.1257/jep.26.2.141
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Bibliographic Info

Article provided by American Economic Association in its journal Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Volume (Year): 26 (2012)
Issue (Month): 2 (Spring)
Pages: 141-63

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Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:26:y:2012:i:2:p:141-63

Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.26.2.141
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  1. An, Chong-Bum & Haveman, Robert & Wolfe, Barbara, 1993. "Teen Out-of-Wedlock Births and Welfare Receipt: The Role of Childhood Events and Economic Circumstances," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 75(2), pages 195-208, May.
  2. Melissa Schettini Kearney & Phillip B. Levine, 2012. "Explaining Recent Trends in the U.S. Teen Birth Rate," NBER Working Papers 17964, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Phillip B. Levine, 2002. "The Impact of Social Policy and Economic Activity Throughout the Fertility Decision Tree," NBER Working Papers 9021, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Hotz, V Joseph & Mullin, Charles H & Sanders, Seth G, 1997. "Bounding Causal Effects Using Data from a Contaminated Natural Experiment: Analysing the Effects of Teenage Childbearing," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 64(4), pages 575-603, October.
  5. David I. Levine & Gary Painter, 2003. "The Schooling Costs of Teenage Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing: Analysis with a Within-School Propensity-Score-Matching Estimator," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 85(4), pages 884-900, November.
  6. Melissa Schettini Kearney, 2002. "Is There an Effect of Incremental Welfare Benefits on Fertility Behavior? A Look at the Family Cap," NBER Working Papers 9093, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  7. V. Joseph Hotz & Seth G. Sanders & Susan Williams McElroy, 1999. "Teenage Childbearing and Its Life Cycle Consequences: Exploiting a Natural Experiment," NBER Working Papers 7397, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Kevin Lang & Adam Ashcraft, 2010. "The Consequences of Teenage Childbearing: Consistent Estimates When Abortion Makes Miscarriage Nonrandom," Boston University - Department of Economics - Working Papers Series WP2010-016, Boston University - Department of Economics.
  9. Phillip B. Levine & David J. Zimmerman, 2010. "Targeting Investments in Children: Fighting Poverty When Resources are Limited," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number levi09-1, octubre-d.
  10. Melissa Schettini Kearney & Phillip B. Levine, 2011. "Income Inequality and Early Non-Marital Childbearing: An Economic Exploration of the "Culture of Despair"," NBER Working Papers 17157, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  11. Robert A. Moffitt, 2003. "The Negative Income Tax and the Evolution of U.S. Welfare Policy," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 17(3), pages 119-140, Summer.
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Cited by:
  1. Grönqvist, Hans & Hall, Caroline, 2011. "Education policy and early fertility: Lessons from an expansion of upper secondary schooling," Working Paper Series, Center for Labor Studies 2011:20, Uppsala University, Department of Economics.
  2. Shelly Lundberg & Robert A. Pollak, 2013. "Cohabitation and the Uneven Retreat from Marriage in the U.S., 1950-2010," NBER Chapters, in: Human Capital in History: The American Record National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Elizabeth Ananat & Anna Gassman-Pines & Christina M. Gibson-Davis, 2013. "Community-Wide Job Loss and Teenage Fertility," NBER Working Papers 19003, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  4. Sandner, Malte, 2013. "Effects of Early Childhood Intervention on Maternal Employment, Fertility and Well-Being. Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial," Hannover Economic Papers (HEP) dp-516, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Wirtschaftswissenschaftliche Fakultät.
  5. Alberto Chong & Marco Gonzalez-Navarro & Dean Karlan & Martin Valdivia, 2013. "Effectiveness and Spillovers of Online Sex Education: Evidence from a Randomized Evaluation in Colombian Public Schools," NBER Working Papers 18776, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Elizabeth Ananat & Anna Gassman-Pines & Christina Gibson-Davis, 2013. "Community-Wide Job Loss and Teenage Fertility: Evidence From North Carolina," Demography, Springer, vol. 50(6), pages 2151-2171, December.
  7. Paula England & Lawrence Wu & Emily Shafer, 2013. "Cohort Trends in Premarital First Births: What Role for the Retreat From Marriage?," Demography, Springer, vol. 50(6), pages 2075-2104, December.

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