For Many Poor Black Girls, Teen Pregnancy Is A Rational Choice

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.

This entry posted in Families structures, divorce, etc, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

123 Responses to For Many Poor Black Girls, Teen Pregnancy Is A Rational Choice

  1. 101
    curiousgyrl says:

    I dont think the author believes that all young black females are poor. I think she is just talking about young black females who are poor.

  2. 102
    sylphhead says:

    Women of colour as a group may adapt to certain behaviours based on outside factors, but individuals within the group are far more likely to be inclined toward (or at least less averse to) something like teen pregnancy based on what they see others like themselves doing. Group dynamics are a far better predictor of behaviour than an atomized cost benefit calculus.

    Personally, I don’t recall ever having made a personal, defining, emotion-laden decision with primarily economic considerations in mind and with an Excel data table out in front of me. But that’s just because I hate capitalism and I hate America.

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  4. 103
    Silenced is foo. says:

    I have to agree that the primary reason for the epidemic of teen-aged pregnancy is simply that the mothers have nothing better to look forward to.

    Let’s be blunt here – there is an emotional urge to bear children. Obviously, this is a gross over-generalization, but women _want_ to have babies. Now, considering that your life isn’t going to get any better, and it pretty much sucks now, and everyone else is doing it and managing okay…. why not now?

    Really, let’s think one thing over: if a girl wants a baby and her life is going to suck no matter what, and she’s going to have the baby anyways, and she doesn’t really care who the father is – does it even matter if she’s an adult or not?

    We see teen-aged childbirth as a tragedy because of it’s effect on the woman’s future – her marriageability, her employability, her education, her freedom, etc. But a poor woman in a ghetto will never find a good man, a good job, a good education, or any real freedom.

    Is it that hard to believe they’d notice that and figure “why the hell not?”

    Because that’s the real point. If it’s a biological urge, you don’t need a reason to. You need a reason not to.

    And there is no deterrent. We can’t even create a deterrent, because that would be inhumane – it’s impossible to punish the mother without punishing the child (as much as the conservatives want to punish them).

    So the only real way to fix the problem is to create a real future for these girls – one that parenthood will get in the way of. And that means seeing to it that they get a real education and real job prospects.

  5. 104
    lisa says:

    There’s an excellent new sociology text out on this topic: Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, by Edin and Kafalas. Check it out-

  6. 105
    La Girl Writer says:

    I’m writing an article for a national magazine on teens who want to have a baby and try to get pregnant on purpose and I’m looking to interview over the telephone teenage girls, teachers, educators,doctors, parents, etc who would like to talk about the phenomenon of teen girls wanting to get pregnant on purpose, not using birth control, looking forward to a baby, etc. Any leads, especially to teen girls who would like to talk on the phone about having had babies that they purposefully became pregnant with, are welcome. Email me at with any and all information!

  7. 106
    Anna says:

    As an African-American female I’d like to say:

    1) Abortions cost upwards of $300. If you’re poor, who has that kind of money? I’ll tell you who, middle-class and above. And at that socio-economic level, you can see other paths for yourself besides single motherhood as a teenager, b/c most likely you’re planning to go to college or some type of higher learning institution. Not to mention (I’ve heard) that abortions are scary, for ANY woman. More so I’d suspect if you have to go in there alone. Most folks married or otherwise don’t know the commitment, sacrifice, and struggle that’s involved with having a baby. That’s why they say you’re never really ready no matter who you are.

    2) Teens don’t think rationally. “Someone to love me” as a reason to have a baby is a real ‘phenomenon’ across the board. I don’t know if that’s a female self-esteem issue or what.

    3) The comments about “being self-sufficent” and “not depending on a man’s salary” in marriage are absolutely true to MY family and the families of black women I know. Sure, that’s an informal sample, but I’d be willing to bet that’s the case for many African-American women regardless of socio-economic status. Our families in-grain that message in us: “Have your own job that can support you, be independent enough to leave him . . .” Whether rooted in the effects of slavery and the ability for a slave master to rip a family apart or racism and lynching of the Jim Crow era, the high numbers of black men being incarcerated (whether justly or injustly, it affects black women all the same), a non-committal partner, rising rates of interracial marriage b/t black men and other women, violence in your neighborhood, or domestic violence that could lead to the endangerment of your own welfare or that of your prospective child . . . its something that the black families that I know do. They tell their daughters to be self-sufficient and to NEVER depend on a man for your survival. The only man that’s acceptable for you to depend on is your own father, and I believe that for poor black female teenager, the statistics have shown that that’s not particularly a reliable source either (on average). All that said, we’re taught to be completely independent (able to sustain ourselves and any children) before taking any vows. However, the flaw is that its not the same standard to be self-sufficient before child-bearing, cause you’ve got family to help regardless of what the father of the child is doing. Maybe that in combination with the cost of abortion (or birth control), makes it seem more ‘rational’ to have a baby anyway once you get pregnant?

    4) Again, speaking on the black family based on my upbringing etc, African-American families are highly matriarchal. Even when its a two-parent home, Momma runs the house. Aunties, Grandmas, Female Cousins , best friends, Female neighbors even. . . it is OUR responsibility to take care of the next generations, i.e. the babies that come (no matter how they come). So, if you have that network at 16 and say, people are only getting older, what exactly is the deterrent to getting pregnant at 16? I myself have wondered–career-wise– would it have been better to just pop one out in high school cause I know my parents and family would have lent a hand (however begrudgingly). After college etc,. you’re on your own (atleast in my family). Would that have really prevented me from getting my college degree and MBA? And I didn’t grow up poor.

    Within my own family and I suspect for many other black families, it is acceptable to transfer a child to another relative for raising. I have a cousin raised by an Aunt who didn’t have children of her own because her own child had died at a young age. That Aunt is her “mother” figure. No one has an issue with this, not even her birth mother.

    3) Growing up within the black middle class, I’ve seen girls have the babies and keep it moving . . . going on to college, grad school, jobs, whatever. For many, it has resulted in a marriage down the line (I know PLENTY of baby mamas who are engaged!) to either another man or possibly the baby’s father. I feel it has alot to do with how the kids will be raised and/or supported by the family network. Upper-class folks (especially upper class white folks) feel the only way to support a child is through a strong marriage, the union of a man and woman in matrimony. For a community whose men have constitently been sold, lynched, incarcerated, and/or absent by choice through HISTORY in this country, the ability to marry is not always an option. So, do we delay child birth indefinitely?

    Clearly, middle class blacks and poor blacks are not the same thing, however I feel that race will always be a connection (and similarity in behaviors for some things) between us and many (but not all) tenets of raising a family are similar just due to similar histories and the past of this country. I also understand/have felt that the black middle class has been and will continue to be the ‘buffer’ between the black lower class and white middle class. Meaning, I can understand the point of view of both sides, but I think that there are few things that they will agree on, thus making it hard for studies, research and comparisons to be done.

  8. 107
    Linda Seru says:

    Such wisdom!
    Virtually everything said in the blog applies to the UK too. Good stuff. thank you

  9. 108
    Rachel says:

    Hey Ampersand! I am a Family Engagement Specialist for GED students in Georgia and wanted to do an interactive assignment with them as many of them are “black teenage girls” who had a child or multiple during their teenage years. I want them to be able to speak about your blog and self-reflect on what many of the other users have commented. Indeed these men and women in my class have experienced what you are talking about and I think they could give some excellent insight into the subject at hand. Today we are going to the computer lab and blogging on your website. I hope you enjoy it. There should be around 13 new blogs!!!!

  10. 109
    Brittny says:

    well i am a teenage mom and i think its not bad to be a teenage mother because even though i don’t have my first baby daddy around to help out with my first child my second baby daddy is there for her. and abortions that’s one thing i don’t believe in is abortions. why? is because for one ain’t no baby no mistake why take a innocent baby life away. i fell like if you live your life now its time for the baby to live theres b/c it would be low down kill a innocent baby. And we are not hte only balck teenagers that gets pregnant other racisis get pregnant aswell not only the black African American.Thanks 4 reading what i have to say Bye Bye!!!!

  11. 110
    Taitiana Bender says:

    This blog expressses many different points of views of teenage pregnancy,which i feel are very true.However this blog is very racist because its address to black teenage girls.But thats ok because i do understand that this is our opinion,but i can relate to some of these things because i had a child at 16 years old and yeah i had some support and then again i had no support at all.So its not better to have a child as at teenager.

  12. 111
    alton says:

    i think children in todays world need parental guidance; parent need to teach their daughters about the things that keep them balance in the future; let them aware; prevention is better than cure; confont the things which is going; not the things that is coming.rlgreen2UGA.EDU

  13. 112
    Rhanita says:

    I dont agree on poor black teen pregnancy because its not just poor blacks, there are also,whites,hispanics and other poor people who get pregnant at an early age .So dont try to high light the black people ,because they dont have abortion money & they dont believe in abortions, if a lot of white people wouldn’t have aborted there kids then it may could be the same population .Its also a choice a girl make its their choice. I feel that whoever wrote this article & if there not black,poor or have a lot of kids then what the fuck can they say i say stay out of people buissness these people have to take care of their children you don’t.

  14. 113
    jackie says:

    Hello all,

    This is an interesting perspective and one that I agree with, but why aim it just at African American teenagers. Isn’t it true of other ethnic groups. As an anthropologist, I would say that in many cultures, having a baby between 17 and 19 is ideal, under particular conditions. What are those conditions – poverty, lack of ability to afford college tuition, thinking that you don’t have a chance to go to college, and what if the jobs are not there to employ college graduates (as in rural areas) I think the relevan questions is “what is different about middle class western society that makes it worthwhile to put off having children.”

    I hope you all will read the blogs of our teenage mothers and fathers. They have something to say.

  15. 114
    brittany says:

    i agree somewhat you are saying and i disagree alot to. i’m black and poor i had a abortion. you shouldn”t say BLACK POOR people it’s white an other race to. yeah alot all teenagers have babies cause of the household they liveing in and what i mean by that is mother not showing there child how the real world is. parent are scared to let there child go out a hage out with friends cause of what might happen to them. but parents have to realize that the more they kids see out here and the street they gone see they don’t want to live like that they have to leard on by thereself.

  16. 115
    sheketa says:

    I DONT AGREE WITH YOU ABOUT JUST BLACK GIRLS GETING PREGNANT BECAUSE WHITE GIRLS AND MEXICAN GIRL TO. I look at like this as long as they get there education and go to college thats how they will make in the world.

  17. 116
    Ampersand says:

    Welcome to all the new visitors!

    A lot of people are questioning this post’s focus on poor black teens, rather than all poor teens.

    Point well taken. In particular, I think the word “black” in the title of this post is a mistake on my part. I’m sorry about that.

    At the time I wrote this post, I was trying to not only convey my own opinions, but to convey what I think is well supported by the research I read. And both of the researchers whose work I relied on in this post had conducted their research in the black community. Hence, this post’s focus on poor black teenagers.

  18. 117
    justoneblackgirl says:

    My own experience is that of being born into a working-class (both parents), Black, Catholic middle-class family. I was raised in a loving community (extended family, neighbors, teachers et al). Humbly using my own experience as a guide, I believe that children (female and male) are less likely to engage in adolescent sexual behavior if they are guided by the primary caretaker (ideally two parents but not exclusively) : 1. Understand that education is the path to individual freedom. 2. Value chastity as an important virtue. It would be enlightening to see statistics (if they could be gathered) on the reason unwed teenager girls get pregnant. It is not hard to imagine that some see the pregnancy as a way to create someone who will “love” them. It’s also imaginable that they did not have parents that guided them in the numerous ways needed to stay on the better path.

  19. 118
    andrew kemp says:

    I really like what you have to say. I teach at a school full of teen-mothers here in Detroit. I especially see the opportunity-cost thing. That makes a lot of sense. While there are some 4000 teen moms in Detroit alone our enrollment has been going down. Our school offers excellent free child care (school) and high school classes. We are looking for ways to reach these ladies and get them in here to benefit from the great education for their children and for themsleves. I am putting this out there as a request for ideas about how to let these ladies know we’re here, but also as an experiment. If I spread the word through blogs like this will I be reaching the population we are talking about? Do I need to advertise on blogs about Lil Wayne? Do these ladies blog?

    Please let me know what you think. I’ll start a blog on the topic myself. You can email me at

    Our school is Catherine Ferguson Academy and you should call us if you want to enroll.

    We are having a huge baby shower for new mothers and mothers to be on July 2nd. OUr phone is (313) 596-4766.

    Thanks, drew

  20. 119
    BananaDanna says:

    “If I spread the word through blogs like this will I be reaching the population we are talking about? Do I need to advertise on blogs about Lil Wayne? Do these ladies blog?”

    Hmm… I don’t know.. for teens, social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Black Planet are probably the way to go, along with perhaps LiveJournal type blogs that have teen communities that can sometimes be as specific as “Young Mothers”.

  21. 120
    snowe says:

    Myspace is probably one of the best places to reach out to teens; creating an account for your school would be a good way to network.

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