There’s a lot of talk about ending teen pregnancy (although by “teen pregnancy” most people really mean unwed teen pregnancy). Many people worry about unwed teen pregnancy as the cause of poverty, especially of Black poverty (something like 70% of current births among African-Americans are to single mothers). And they talk about teen pregnancy as if it were a pathology.
I think the pathology model is mistaken. Poverty is a cause of high teen pregnancy rates, rather than vice-versa. And poor black teens aren’t pathological; they’re rational actors, who make the best choice they can given the opportunities they have. When high rates of some population – in this case, poor girls and especially poor Blacks – get pregnant, then chances are getting pregnant is a good choice for their circumstances. If we want less pregnancy among poor black teens, then we need to reorder society so that poor black teens face a better set of circumstances.
Why is unwed teen pregnancy a rational choice?
1) For teens raised in poor (and statistically more likely to be polluted) areas, with lousy food and lousy medical care, their health will probably peak at around ages 17-19. That makes the teenage years a much better time to give birth than later years. Among poor black girls and women, the infant mortality rate is twice as high among those who wait until their 20s to give birth as it is for those who give birth in their teens.
2) For those who will be relying on an extended family of older female relatives to help with childcare and support, it makes sense to give birth when mothers, aunts and older cousins are younger and more able to offer assistance. Furthermore, grandmothers may feel more obligated to offer extensive aid to their 16-year-old pregnant daughter than to their 26-year-old pregnant daughter.
3) For middle-class whites, the opportunity costs (aka “what you give up”) of early childbirth are enormous; college and early career-building are made much harder by a baby or two in tow. Furthermore, the odds of eventually getting married and having a healthy child in wedlock are very good for middle-class teens who wait until they’re women to marry and have children.
For poor teens of color, in contrast, the opportunity costs of early childbirth are much lower. Poor teens can see that their odds of affording a good college followed by a high-paying, high-status career are low. And for poor black girls, the odds of finding someone suitable to marry during peak childbearing years – or even during their 20s – are much lower. So overall, poor girls of color have much less reason to delay childbearing.
Studies have shown that, for poor women of color, economic outcomes aren’t much different for girls who wait to become mothers in their 20s than they are for girls who become mothers in their teens. One study I read (which I’ve seen referred to by Arline Geronimus, but not by others) compared sisters who became mothers at different times in their lives, for example, and found that the future income was about the same regardless of the time of first birth.
At this point, therefore, it’s no wonder that so many poor teens see no reason to put off motherhood. Rationally, they’re as well off – or better off – becoming a mother in their teens.
If we want to change teen pregnancy, we need to change the circumstances of poor girls’ lives – and especially the lives of poor black girls – until their most rational choice is to put motherhood off until they’re in their mid-twenties and married. Circumstances that need changing include, but aren’t limited to:
1) The provision of easy-access, super-cheap universal health care. The model should be France’s, where anyone can walk into any general practitioner’s office and make an appointment without having to navigate any bureaucracies or pay out of pocket.
2) Middle-class, attractive jobs need to become widely available for poor folks.
3) There need to be far, far fewer black men of marriageable age in jail and prison.
4) Detriments to health that are especially common in areas where poor folks live – things like lead paint, poor quality food, pollution, etc – need to be effectively mitigated or eliminated.
5) College education and attractive career paths after college need to become likely possibilities for poor girls – even for those who are mediocre scholars. Just as such paths are now available for middle-class and wealthy boys even if they’re mediocre scholars.
6) Much, much more serious work fighting the racism and sexism that (among many other causes) holds back women of color. Affirmative action programs should be returned to their strong forms, which haven’t existed since before the Reagan administration.
I used to wonder if I was the only liberal who thought this way. Then, a few days ago, I came across a reference to Arline Geronimus on a feminist econ list I read. She’s done a lot of research on rational choice and teen pregnancy; much of this post is drawn from her work.