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


  • Melissa Schettini Kearney
  • Phillip B. Levine


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.

Suggested Citation

  • 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.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17157
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    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, September.
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    7. 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.
    8. Melissa Schettini Kearney, 2004. "Is There an Effect of Incremental Welfare Benefits on Fertility Behavior?: A Look at the Family Cap," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 39(2).
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    13. George A. Akerlof & Janet L. Yellen & Michael L. Katz, 1996. "An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 111(2), pages 277-317.
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    Cited by:

    1. Grönqvist, Hans & Hall, Caroline, 2013. "Education policy and early fertility: Lessons from an expansion of upper secondary schooling," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 37(C), pages 13-33.
    2. Melissa S. Kearney & Phillip B. Levine, 2012. "Why Is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States So High and Why Does It Matter?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 26(2), pages 141-163, Spring.
    3. Paula Fomby & Laurie James-Hawkins & Stefanie Mollborn, 2015. "Family Resources in Two Generations and School Readiness Among Children of Teen Parents," Population Research and Policy Review, Springer;Southern Demographic Association (SDA), vol. 34(5), pages 733-759, October.
    4. 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.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • I3 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty
    • J1 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics

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