Despite declining rates, teen birth rates in the United States remain persistently high, at 34.4 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. And these rates are dramatically higher than in other developed countries. In the United States, girls are more than twice as likely as their Canadian peers to have a child (14.2), and nearly six times as likely as Swedish teens (5.9).1
New analyses published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggest that part of the explanation for high fertility among American teens may be related to surrounding income inequality—the local gap between “haves” and “have nots.”
Recent analyses of data from the National Survey of Family Growth suggest that teenage girls of lower socioeconomic status, in regions of high income inequality, are far more likely to “keep their baby.” Teenagers of higher socioeconomic status—with college-educated mothers—and in regions with less income inequality have lower birth rates.
Culture of Despair
“A culture of despair” is the argument put forward by researchers Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, with the University of Maryland Population Research Center and Wellesley College respectively.2 Their hypothesis follows the classic work of sociologist William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged (1987). Wilson argues that specific places become characterized by persistent poverty because of lack of opportunity, social isolation, and exclusion from the job network. In such places, hopelessness generates despair.
On teenage childbearing, Kearny and Levine argue that “when a poor young woman perceives that socioeconomic success is not achievable to her, she is more likely to embrace motherhood in her current position … When there is relatively more hope of economic advancement, it is relatively more desirable to delay motherhood and invest in human or social capital.”3
Kearney and Levine draw on data from the National Survey of Family Growth, representing over 42,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44; they used data from seven of the years between 1982 and 2008. Analytically, they focus on unmarried women who were pregnant before age 20.
To test the “culture of despair” hypothesis, the researchers make use of substantial, persistent geographic variation in both teenage birth rates and state-level income inequality. For example, young girls in Mississippi have children three times more often than those in New Hampshire. In 2005, the teenage birth rate in Mississippi was 61 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19, while in New Hampshire the rate was 18.4 These variations have remained remarkably persistent over the past two decades.
Income inequality is also persistent in its geographic variation. Washington, D.C., tends to have a high level of income inequality, while a low level of income inequality can characterize relatively impoverished states (such as Arizona) or those better off (such as New Hampshire).
Kearney and Levine use econometric modeling techniques that consider other factors affecting teenage birth rates such as age, race/ethnicity, and state-level characteristics such as unemployment rate, religiosity, poverty, racial/ethnic makeup, and welfare policies. But a key factor is the measure of income inequality—the ratio of income at the 10th and 50th percentiles for the state. The higher the ratio, the larger the gap between low-income and middle-income households.
Results clearly suggest that women of low socioeconomic status, whose mothers dropped out of high school, are more likely to give birth as a single teen if they live in a region of high income inequality. Interestingly, teens of high socioeconomic status are not necessarily less likely to get pregnant, but are more likely to experience a “pregnancy failure,” typically meaning abortion.
University of Colorado Population Center researcher Stefanie Mollborn also notes that context matters for teenage girls. In her qualitative interviews with college students, Mollborn finds that the social stigma associated with teenage childbearing varies strongly by community socioeconomic status. In wealthier communities, Mollborn argues, “teens who ‘mess up’ by getting themselves or a partner pregnant are judged not as immoral but as ‘stupid’.”5 Such social pressure may play a role in the greater likelihood of abortion among higher-status teens.
Contextual vulnerability shaping personal vulnerability is also the theme of recent research focused on African American adolescent women in urban Atlanta. A study published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health reports an association between condom use and young women’s economic empowerment. Lead author Janet Rosenbaum, of the University of Maryland Population Research Center, reports that “women whose boyfriend was their primary source of spending money were 50 percent more likely never to use condoms.”6 Such findings suggest that young girls with the least financial independence are often most vulnerable to pregnancy.
These three studies represent only a portion of the body of research demonstrating that social context plays a role in teenage pregnancy and childbearing. Such work should inform policies and programs to support current teen parents and to reduce future teen pregnancies. Disadvantaged teen girls in communities of persistent relative poverty represent a logical population to target for intervention. In such settings, a broad “culture of despair” combined with teen girls’ economic vulnerability may shape low condom use and higher rates of teenage childbearing.
Lori M. Hunter is an associate professor of sociology, Institute of Behavioral Science, Programs on Population, Environment and Society, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is also editor-in-chief of Population and Environment. This article is part of PRB’s CPIPR project, funded by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Hunter is liaison from the University of Colorado’s Population Center to CPIPR. Other NICHD-funded researchers highlighted in this article are Melissa Kearney and Janet Rosenbaum of the University of Maryland’s Population Research Center, and Stefanie Mollborn of the University of Colorado Population Center.