Why are teen birth rates so high in the U.S. and why does it matter?
of Economic Perspectives 26(2), Spring 2012:
141-63. (Previously released as NBER working paper 17965, March 2012)
Professor of Economics
This paper examines two aspects of teen childbearing in the United
States. First, it reviews and synthesizes the evidence on the reasons
why teen birth rates are so uniquely high in the United States and
especially in some states. Second, it considers why and how it matters.
We argue that economists' typical explanations are unable to account for
any sizable share of the geographic variation. We describe some recent
analysis indicating that the combination of being poor and living in a
more unequal (and less mobile) location, like the United States, leads
young women to choose early, non-marital childbearing at elevated rates,
potentially because of their lower expectations of future economic
success. Consistent with this view, 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.