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Does Early Childbearing Affect Poverty?

May 15th, 2012 · 6 Comments

Matt Yglesias points to recent research questioning the oft-asserted link between early childbearing and later poverty:

Kearney and Levine used data on miscarriages to isolate the impact of giving birth from background characteristics that may contribute to a decision to give birth. When used this way as a statistical control, the negative consequences of teen childbirth appear to be small and short-lived. Young women who gave birth and young women who miscarried have similarly bleak economic outcomes.  Similarly, when you compare teen mothers not to the general population but to their own sisters who aren’t teen moms “the differences are quite modest.”

Part of this is unsurprising: In their excellent book Promises I Can Keep (which I reviewed forever ago) Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas chronicle in some detail how single motherhood is often a powerful source of meaning and identity for poor young women whose already unattractive economic prospects make the opportunity costs seem relatively slight. So it’s hardly news that there’s causation in that direction—from poverty to early, often unmarried childbearing. But it should be quite shocking that there’s no further effect, that the causation here is unidirectional, rather than a feedback loop. Can it really be the case, as this summary seems to suggest, that the added burden of raising a child alone makes so little difference in long-term economic prospects? It’s implausible enough on face that it’s tempting to look for ways the effect might be obscured, rather than nonexistent.

Unfortunately, the article itself is paywalled, so all I’ve got to go on is Matt’s precis. But the obvious question is whether this is just picking up the arbitrariness of distinguishing between single “teen” and “young non-teen” pregnancies. We mostly talk about the former because, well, it can sound creepy  to suggest that adult reproduction is a problem. But in terms of the effect on education and career, becoming a single mom at 21 is probably pretty disruptive too, even if it’s not an obstacle to finishing high school. (In some cases it might even be more so, since the teen parent is more likely to still be living at home, with family resources and support networks to draw upon—and a child old enough for school when it comes time to enter the work force.) If that describes a large enough subset of the comparison group—the sisters and the women who miscarry—then it might just tell us that the effects of single teen parenthood are similar to those of single young parenthood more generally.  If that’s what’s going on, it would be an important reminder that nothing magical actually happens when the odometer rolls over, but wouldn’t really hit the question of whether delaying childrearing to (say) the early 30s rather than the early 20s would reduce poverty.

Tags: Sociology



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ryan P // May 15, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    I’m not sure I follow. Yes, sure, some teen miscarriages or sisters of teen moms will be unmarried moms in their 20s. But are teens who miscarry particularly likely to be unmarried moms a couple years later, and the difference so small, that the measured effect is small to nonexistent?

    And suppose the treatment effect is large but that sisters of teen moms are so likely to be non-teen-but-still-young moms that we don’t pick it up. That would imply that we have a hard time statistically distinguishing between the “was a young unmarried mom” treatment effect and the “whatever unobserved background characteristics are shared by family members and make you very likely to be a young unmarried mom” treatment effect. Is it immediately obvious that we should expect the former to be a big deal for predicting future poverty and the latter (poverty, bad schools, upbringing, cosmic rays, etc) unimportant?

  • 2 Mike // May 16, 2012 at 11:58 am

    I’d be more curious if there were some way to compare the economic prospects of the children of these mothers. Intergenerational poverty is a much worse problem than the future earnings of the mothers themselves, and teen motherhood is highly correlated with worse outcomes for the children, as far as I understand.

  • 3 Mayson Lancaster // May 16, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    I’d really like to see your take on, and response to, the Harlem Children’s Zone project. It seems to be the kind of intervention needed to break the poverty cycle.

  • 4 Barr // May 18, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Jukian, check your e-mail.

  • 5 Eroxa // Nov 19, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    My son was in the NICU for 120 days, he was 15 weeks premature. In the bngnneiig, I felt much like your daughter. The nurses feel (I think) that is is their job to take care of the babies, and that is more difficult to do with a parent looking over their shoulder . The thing that worked for us was to simply continue going. I became as active in my son’s care as possible, I learned everything I could about my son’s conditions, what could happen, the machines, the meds, and his treatment plan. I bought books on preemies and studied them when I wasn’t in the NICU. I brought things into the NICU for my son, decorated his space , and advocated for him. I spoke to the doctors intelligently, not just like a greiving mother. One of the most important things, I think, was that I took no crap. I didn’t allow them to talk down to me because they were professionals, and if they were using terms with which I was unfamiliar, I asked questions until I completly understood, and I didn’t feel bad for doing it. I asserted my authority as his mother, which is just as important as being his doctor or nurse. I think I ended up earning the nurse’s respect, and this helped. After a while, they seemed to look forward to me coming, because they knew I was capable of taking care of my baby, and that they didn’t have to watch me every second of my visit, and that I wasn’t out to get them. It’s important for her to realize that while her babies are in the NICU they are ultimately the doctor’s and nurse’s responsiblity, and they usually take that very seriously and become very protective of the babies. I think this is a good thing. Your daughter just needs to show them that she is serious about being a good mother, especially to babies who need special care. Tell your daughter not to allow them to make her feel that way, she is doing what’s right for her babies, and its high time she let them know that. Good grief, I guess that’s finally all. Good luck, and congratulations on the beatiful babies!

  • 6 Aaron Lawson // Mar 22, 2018 at 3:01 am

    Childbearing in early stages of life ruins the life and of course, I believe, it leads to poverty. Pregnancy at 23 to 39 looks better.