Why is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States So High and Why Does It Matter?

University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA.
Journal of Economic Perspectives (Impact Factor: 4.21). 05/2012; 26(2):141-66. DOI: 10.2307/41495308
Source: PubMed


Teens in the United States are far more likely to give birth than in any other industrialized country in the world. U.S. teens are two and a half times as likely to give birth as compared to teens in Canada, around four times as likely as teens in Germany or Norway, and almost 10 times as likely as teens in Switzerland. Among more developed countries, Russia has the next highest teen birth rate after the United States, but an American teenage girl is still around 25 percent more likely to give birth than her counterpart in Russia. Moreover, these statistics incorporate the almost 40 percent fall in the teen birth rate that the United States has experienced over the past two decades. Differences across U.S. states are quite dramatic as well. A teenage girl in Mississippi is four times more likely to give birth than a teenage girl in New Hampshire--and 15 times more likely to give birth as a teen compared to a teenage girl in Switzerland. This paper has two overarching goals: understanding why the teen birth rate is so high in the United States and understanding why it matters. Thus, we begin by examining multiple sources of data to put current rates of teen childbearing into the perspective of cross-country comparisons and recent historical context. We examine teen birth rates alongside pregnancy, abortion, and "shotgun" marriage rates as well as the antecedent behaviors of sexual activity and contraceptive use. We seek insights as to why the rate of teen childbearing is so unusually high in the United States as a whole, and in some U.S. states in particular. We argue that explanations that economists have tended to study are unable to account for any sizable share of the variation in teen childbearing rates across place. We describe some recent empirical work demonstrating that variation in income inequality across U.S. states and developed countries can explain a sizable share of the geographic variation in teen childbearing. To the extent that income inequality is associated with a lack of economic opportunity and heightened social marginalization for those at the bottom of the distribution, this empirical finding is potentially consistent with the ideas that other social scientists have been promoting for decades but which have been largely untested with large data sets and standard econometric methods. Our reading of the totality of evidence leads us to conclude that being on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried and that poor outcomes seen later in life (relative to teens who do not have children) are simply the continuation of the original low economic trajectory. That is, teen childbearing is explained by the low economic trajectory but is not an additional cause of later difficulties in life. Surprisingly, teen birth itself does not appear to have much direct economic consequence. Moreover, no silver bullet such as expanding access to contraception or abstinence education will solve this particular social problem. Our view is that teen childbearing is so high in the United States because of underlying social and economic problems. It reflects a decision among a set of girls to "drop-out" of the economic mainstream; they choose non-marital motherhood at a young age instead of investing in their own economic progress because they feel they have little chance of advancement. This thesis suggests that to address teen childbearing in America will require addressing some difficult social problems: in particular, the perceived and actual lack of economic opportunity among those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

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    • " poverty (Kearney & Levine, 2012) provide insight into why birth mothers might be motivated to avoid parenting, but they do not account for why they make the comparatively rare choice of adoption over abortion. Although direct comparisons have not been done, the markers of income and education described also suggest a clear socioeconomic distinction between birth mothers and women who obtain abortions, 42% of whom fall below the federal poverty line (Jones, Finer, & Singh, 2010). "
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    ABSTRACT: As the least-chosen option when faced with an unplanned pregnancy, adoption remains largely unexamined as a reproductive choice. Although the anti-abortion movement promotes adoption as its preferred alternative to abortion, little is known of birth mothers' pregnancy decision making and whether adoption was chosen in lieu of abortion. I conducted in-depth interviews with 40 women who had placed infants for adoption from 1962 to 2009. Participants were asked about all aspects of their adoption experiences, including their pregnancy decision making and thoughts on abortion. Interview transcripts were analyzed using grounded theory to find unifying themes speaking to reproductive choice. Participants' stories revealed widely varying ideas about abortion. Many were opposed to abortion, but a greater number supported abortion as a reproductive choice, although one they did not choose for themselves. Birth mothers were most often choosing between adoption and parenting, not adoption and abortion. Most participants would have preferred to parent, but did not because of external variables. Mixed experiences with adoption also influenced participants' long-term ideas about reproductive choice. Findings suggest that the anti-abortion framing of adoption as a preferable alternative to abortion is inconsistent with birth mothers' pregnancy decision-making experiences and their feelings about adoption. Reducing social barriers to both abortion and parenting will ensure that adoption is situated as a true reproductive choice. Copyright © 2015 Jacobs Institute of Women's Health. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
    Women s Health Issues 08/2015; 25(4). DOI:10.1016/j.whi.2015.05.007 · 1.61 Impact Factor
    • "Although adolescent pregnancy has decreased in recent years (Hamilton et al., 2011), the adolescent birthrate in the United States remains among the highest of any industrialized nation (Kearney & Levine, 2012). In the 1970s, adolescent childbearing emerged as a significant social, political, and public health priority (Shields & Pierce, 2006) from within a cultural context largely condemning teenage pregnancy as an amoral act, politically and psychosocially stigmatizing young women who become pregnant , and young African American mothers in particular (Geronimus, 2004). "
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    ABSTRACT: Adolescent childbearing has been viewed as a social, political, and public health priority since the 1970s. Research has primarily focused on the negative consequences of teen pregnancy; less research has explored factors associated with healthy pregnancy and birth experiences in this population. Using open-ended and qualitative techniques, researchers performed individual interviews with 15 adolescent mothers (15 to 19 years of age) recruited from a Women's and Children's Clinic in Southern Louisiana, who had experienced a healthy pregnancy and bore a full-term, normal birth weight infant. We used a resiliency framework to identify factors that may have supported positive health outcomes despite risks associated with low-income and/or marginalized minority status. A total of 15 mothers of multiple racial/ethnic identities were included in the analysis. Mothers discussed potential protective factors that we classified as either assets (internal factors) or resources (external factors). Mothers demonstrated strong assets including self-efficacy and self-acceptance and important resources including familial support and partner support during pregnancy which may have contributed to their resiliency. Ensuring access to social and structural supports as well as supporting adolescent-friendly health and social policies may be key to promoting healthy maternal and infant outcomes among young women who become pregnant. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2015 APA, all rights reserved).
    Families Systems & Health 08/2015; DOI:10.1037/fsh0000141 · 1.13 Impact Factor
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    • "Although some developed countries experienced a relative decline in their incidence of adolescent pregnancy A U T H O R C O P Y 2 D. Jeha et al. / Risks and consequences of adolescent pregnancy [2], this phenomenon remains a prevalent occurrence with much room for improvement. Studies have related adolescent pregnancy to low socioeconomic status, lack of awareness, inadequate contraception, as well as insufficient prenatal care [3] [4]. "
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    ABSTRACT: To evaluate the risks and consequences of young maternal age on both the mother and the newborn. A comprehensive literature review on the risks and consequences of adolescent pregnancy was performed. Young maternal age is associated with an increased risk of maternal anemia, infections, eclampsia and preeclampsia, emergency cesarean delivery, postpartum depression and inadequate breastfeeding initiation. Infants of teenage mothers are more likely to be premature and have a low birth weight, and are at an increased risk for respiratory distress syndrome and autism later in life. Adolescent pregnancy is a prevalent phenomenon associated with increased risks of both maternal and neonatal complications during and after pregnancy. Being aware of such adverse outcomes is imperative to improving prenatal and perinatal care. Pregnancy progression can also be influenced by the mother's culture, environment, and economic status; advancement in which may be a possible course for future improvement.
    Journal of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine 03/2015; 8(1). DOI:10.3233/NPM-15814038
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