The association between teen childbearing and the host of negative outcomes cited by the media, policymakers, and advocates are just that–associations. There is no evidence that teen childbearing itself causes negative outcomes for teen mothers or their children.
The correlations between teen childbearing and poverty, educational achievement, and poor health outcomes have intuitive appeal and support the conventional wisdom that teen pregnancy has harmful consequences for teen parents, their children, and society. But even the most well meaning advocates, policymakers, and researchers are often unaware of the significant body of research that suggests otherwise.
In the U.S. teens who become parents are more likely to be economically disadvantaged in the first place–before they ever become parents. Therefore, simply comparing life outcomes for teens who become parents to those who delay childbearing is not an appropriate comparison. Research findings such as those cited in this campaign fail to adequately control for preexisting disadvantage among teen parents. Here is just some of the research, often overlooked by advocates on all sides of the debate, that turns the conventional wisdom on its head.
Kearney and Levine. (2012). Why is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States so High and Why Does it Matter? NBER Working Paper No. 17965.
After an extensive review of the literature Kearney and Levine find that:
“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.”
Bennett et al. (2012). Pre-Teen Literacy and Subsequent Teenage Childbearing in a US Population. Contraception (in press).
Prospective cohort study using standardized reading data from 12,339 girls in the seventh grade in the 1996–97 or 1997–98 academic years of the Philadelphia Public School System linked to birth records from the city of Philadelphia (1996–2002). Finds that less than average reading skill was independently associated with two and a half times the risk of teen childbearing than average reading skill.
Translation: Girls who become teen mothers are more likely to have low literacy skills BEFORE they ever become teen mothers. So when you see findings that teen mothers are more likely to drop out of school BECAUSE they have babies, don’t take such claims at face value. Read those methods closely and think twice about the importance of controlling for preexisting disadvantage among those teens most likely to become teen parents in the US.
National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. (2009). A White Paper on Supporting Healthy Pregnancies, Parenting, and Young Latinas’ Sexual Health.
This important report reviews the research on the “consequences” of teen childbearing and calls for a shift in the discourse on young motherhood. It puts forth that “. . . the current discourse surrounding young motherhood is both stigmatizing and insensitive, and presents young motherhood as a problem in itself as opposed to the real problems that often surround it, such as poverty and lack of access to timely and high quality healthcare services and educational opportunities.”
Geronimus, Arline T. (2003). Damned if You Do: Culture, Identity, Privilege and Teenage Childbearing in the United States. Social Science and Medicine, 57, 881-893.
In this paper Geronimus argues that: “Well-publicized conventional wisdom continues to hold teen childbearing to be, in all cases and in every aspect, an antisocial act and an important public health problem, especially when practiced by urban African Americans. Meanwhile, a significant body of reputable scientific evidence has existed for more than a decade that casts doubt on the conventional wisdom but does not get the same public ‘air time'” (p. 881).
Geronimus, Arline T. (1997). Teenage Childbearing and Personal Responsibility: An Alternative View. Political Science Quarterly, 112, 405-430.
In this paper Geronimus concludes that: “the scientific evidence of causal relationships between teenage childbearing and welfare dependence, or between teenage childbearing and the health and development of the children of teen mothers, is more modest and equivocal than conventional wisdom allows.”
Hotz, V. Joseph, McElroy, Susan W., and Seth G. Sanders. (1997). “Bounding Causal Effects Using Data from a Contaminated Natural Experiment: Analyzing the Effects of Teenage Childbearing.” Review of Economic Studies 64: 575-603.
Findings suggested that women who had their first child before age 18 did not work less, earn less, receive less spousal income, and were no more dependent on public assistance than if they had delayed childbearing.
Hotz, V. Joseph, McElroy, Susan Williams, and Seth G. Sanders. (1996). “The Costs and Consequences of Teenage Childbearing for Mothers.” Chicago Policy Review 64: 55-94.
This study found virtually no difference between the long-term educational attainment and economic outcomes for the teens who had a child and those who miscarried. For a subset of African-American teens, there were some potentially positive effects for those who became teen mothers compared to those who had not. Hotz et al. concluded that selection bias vastly overestimated the effects of teen childbearing cited by previous cross-sectional studies.
Geronimus, Arline T., Korenman, Sanders, and Marianne Hillemeier. (1994). “Does Young Maternal Age Adversely Affect Child Development? Evidence From Cousin Comparisons in the United States.” Population and Development Review 20, no. 3: 585-609.
Examined the school performance of preschool and elementary school age children of teen mothers. Differences on standard achievement tests were often insignificant, and those that were statistically significant were generally better for the children of teen mothers. Found that there was insufficient empirical support for a negative effect of young maternal age on child school performance when controlling for maternal family background.
Furstenberg, Frank F. (1991). As the Pendulum Swings: Teenage Childbearing and Social Concern. Family Relations 40, no. 2: 127-138.
Concluded that researchers had overstated the adverse effects of early childbearing by ignoring the fact that many teenage parents would fare poorly even if they were able to delay the birth of their first child. Studies also ignored the findings that many young mothers display impressive resiliency in managing motherhood.
Upchurch, Dawn M. and James McCarthy. (1990). “The Timing of a First Birth and High School Completion.” Ventira 55: 224-234.
Examined the relationship between the timing of a first birth and high school completion among women. Having a child while enrolled in school did not significantly increase the risk of dropping out of school. Among those who did drop out of school, having a baby reduced their chances of eventual graduation. Concluded that birth had an effect on high school graduation, but not in the way that most previous studies had assumed.
More research links coming soon . . .
Hoffman, Saul D. and Rebecca Maynard, eds. (2008). Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs and Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.
Frank Furstenburg. (2007). Destinies of the Disadvantaged: The Politics of Teen Childbearing. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Luker, Kristin. (1997). Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy. Cambridge, MA: HarvardUniversity Press.
Maynard, Rebecca, ed. (1997.) Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs and Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press.
Vinovskis, Maris A. (1988). An “Epidemic” of Adolescent Pregnancy? Some Historical and Policy Considerations.New York: Oxford University Press.