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Why is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States so High and Why Does it Matter?


  • Melissa Schettini Kearney
  • Phillip B. Levine


This paper examines two aspects of teen childbearing in the United States. First, it reviews and synthesizes the evidence on the reasons why teen birth rates are so uniquely high in the United States and especially in some states. Second, it considers why and how it matters. We argue that economists' typical explanations are unable to account for any sizable share of the geographic variation. We describe some recent analysis indicating that the combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) location, like the United States, leads young women to choose early, non-marital childbearing at elevated rates, potentially because of their lower expectations of future economic success. Consistent with this view, the most rigorous studies on the topic find that teen childbearing has very little, if any, direct negative economic consequence. If it is explained by the low economic trajectory that some young women face, then it makes sense that having a child as a teen would not be an additional cause of poor economic outcomes. These findings lead us to conclude that the high rate of teen childbearing in the United States matters mostly because it is a marker of larger, underlying social problems.

Suggested Citation

  • 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.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17965
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. V. Joseph Hotz & Susan Williams McElroy & Seth G. Sanders, 2005. "Teenage Childbearing and Its Life Cycle Consequences: Exploiting a Natural Experiment," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 40(3).
    4. 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, January.
    5. 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.
    6. 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).
    7. repec:aph:ajpbhl:10.2105/ajph.2006.089169_8 is not listed on IDEAS
    8. 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.
    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. V. Joseph Hotz & Charles H. Mullin & Seth G. Sanders, 1997. "Bounding Causal Effects Using Data from a Contaminated Natural Experiment: Analysing the Effects of Teenage Childbearing," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 64(4), pages 575-603.
    11. 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.
    12. 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.
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • I28 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Government Policy
    • J13 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Fertility; Family Planning; Child Care; Children; Youth

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