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Income Inequality and Early Non-Marital Childbearing: An Economic Exploration of the "Culture of Despair"

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  • Melissa Schettini Kearney
  • Phillip B. Levine

Abstract

Using individual-level data from the United States and a number of other developed countries, we empirically investigate the role of income inequality in determining rates of early, non-marital childbearing among low socioeconomic status (SES) women. We present robust evidence that low SES women are more likely to give birth at a young age and outside of marriage when they live in more unequal places, all else held constant. Our results suggest that inequality itself, as opposed to other correlated geographic factors, drives this relationship. We calculate that differences in the level of inequality are able to explain a sizeable share of the geographic variation in teen fertility rates both across U.S. states and across developed countries. We propose a model of economic “despair” that facilitates the interpretation of our results. It reinterprets the sociological and ethnographic literature that emphasizes the role of economic marginalization and hopelessness into a parsimonious framework that captures the concept of “despair” with an individual’s perception of economic success. Our empirical results are consistent with the idea that income inequality heightens a sense of economic despair among those at the bottom of the distribution.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 17157.

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Date of creation: Jun 2011
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Publication status: published as Kearney, Melissa S. and Phillip Levine. “Income Inequality and Early, Non-Marital Childbearing,” Journal of Human Resources 49, Winter 2014: 1-31
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17157

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  1. Deaton, Angus & Lubotsky, Darren, 2003. "Mortality, inequality and race in American cities and states," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 56(6), pages 1139-1153, March.
  2. A. Colin Cameron & Jonah B. Gelbach & Douglas L. Miller, 2008. "Bootstrap-Based Improvements for Inference with Clustered Errors," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 90(3), pages 414-427, August.
  3. Lundberg, S. & Plotnick, R.D., 1994. "Adolescent Premarital Childbearing: Do Economic Incentives Matters?," Working Papers 94-4, University of Washington, Department of Economics.
  4. Gruber, Jonathan (ed.), 2001. "Risky Behavior among Youths," National Bureau of Economic Research Books, University of Chicago Press, edition 1, number 9780226310138.
  5. Adam Ashcraft & Iván Fernández‐Val & Kevin Lang, 2013. "The Consequences of Teenage Childbearing: Consistent Estimates When Abortion Makes Miscarriage Non‐random," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 123, pages 875-905, 09.
  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. Adam Ashcraft & Kevin Lang, 2006. "The Consequences of Teenage Childbearing," NBER Working Papers 12485, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  8. Levine, Phillip B., 2003. "Parental involvement laws and fertility behavior," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 22(5), pages 861-878, September.
  9. 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.
  10. O'Donoghue, Ted & Rabin, Matthew, 1997. "Doing It Now or Later," Department of Economics, Working Paper Series qt7t44m5b0, Department of Economics, Institute for Business and Economic Research, UC Berkeley.
  11. Corak, Miles, 2006. "Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults? Lessons from a Cross Country Comparison of Generational Earnings Mobility," IZA Discussion Papers 1993, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  12. Greg Duncan & Saul Hoffman, 1990. "Welfare benefits, economic opportunities, and out-of-wedlock births among black teenage girls," Demography, Springer, vol. 27(4), pages 519-535, November.
  13. Robert A. Moffitt, 2003. "The Negative Income Tax and the Evolution of U.S. Welfare Policy," NBER Working Papers 9751, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. Becker, Gary S & Lewis, H Gregg, 1973. "On the Interaction between the Quantity and Quality of Children," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 81(2), pages S279-88, Part II, .
  15. Jessica Cohen & Pascaline Dupas, 2010. "Free Distribution or Cost-Sharing? Evidence from a Randomized Malaria Prevention Experiment," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 125(1), pages 1-45, February.
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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 14/2011, Swedish Institute for Social Research.
  2. Melissa Schettini Kearney & Phillip B. Levine, 2012. "Why is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States so High and Why Does it Matter?," NBER Working Papers 17965, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. 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.

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