Ten Miles Square


May 09, 2012 8:30 AM Why Is the Teen Birth Rate so High in the U.S.?

By Austin Frakt

New from the Journal of Economic Perspectives: “Why Is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States So High and Why Does It Matter?” (ungated pdf) by Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine:

Why is the rate of teen childbearing is so unusually high in the United States as a whole, and in some U.S. states in particular? 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 ten times as likely as teens in Switzerland. 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. 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 demonstrate that variation in income inequality across U.S. states and developed countries can explain a sizable share of the geographic variation in teen childbearing. 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. 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. 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 nonmarital motherhood at a young age instead of investing in their own economic progress because they feel they have little chance of advancement.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]

Austin Frakt is a health economist and an assistant professor at Boston University's School of Medicine and School of Public Health. He blogs at The Incidental Economist.


  • Anonymous on May 10, 2012 10:29 PM:

    it makes sense. the poor always have more kids than the rich throughout the history and universally. Africans have 7 babies and West European have 1 baby.

    lack of sex education and cultural guilt associated with abortion might play some rules while social tolerance/ acceptance toward non-traditional family styles also relax the pressure on teens.

    countries with rigid traditional family values like Germany, Italy and Japan suffer from lack of young women bearing children.

    so it's bad that single mothers don't get enough assistances so many fall in life long poverty but it's good that Americans don't pressure women to abort babies against their will just because they are judged too young or unmarried.

  • CB on May 15, 2012 1:22 PM:

    "lack of sex education"- in a country that promotes teaching sexual practices to kindergarteners? That teaches kids that sex is just a game?
    Abortion should not be sold as an after the fact birth control method. Young girls have sex w/o protection because they know they can either get a free abortion, or Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa- who have adult scruples regarding responsibility- will raise these childrens' children. The teens involved walk away unencumbered, and get money from the government for every 'accident' they produce.
    We live in a culture that encourages kids to idolize bad behavior- we make stars out of sluts and bad boyz, desperate housewives, and people who can't live in harmony in the same house for even a limited amount of time, movie stars with arrest records and drug abuse.

    Countries with Traditional Family Values 'suffer' from a 'lack' of teenaged mothers???? You say that like they need to loosen up and encourage more 14 year olds to give birth.
    Traditional Family Values. There's the answer to the problem. Personal responsibility for your own actions- not counting on government or someone else to clean up your mistake. Sex has consequences- a baby or STD, or just broken hearts. Everything you do has consequences, good or bad, and we should be teaching children how to face up to their choices in life.

  • superdestroyer on May 17, 2012 5:56 AM:

    Any discussion of teen birthrates and the differences between New Hampshire and Mississippi with a discussion of race is just avoiding the issue.

    When the birthrate of teen blacks is higher than the brithrate of teen whites is 49 out of 50 states, then maybe the cause is not income equality but the difference in the dominate cultures of different ethnic groups.


  • Stephan on May 20, 2012 6:47 AM:

    The most effective solution would be the mandatory sterilization of everyone and then cloning people who prove valuable.
    When people only can pass on their genes by accomplishing something in life, they might have more motivation to do so, and those that don't won't weigh down the state with more offspring.
    Combine that with eugenetics and genetic engineering and you can actually turn the human species into something valuable.
    And No, I am not trolling. I am dead serious.

  • dwindle on May 20, 2012 3:23 PM:

    I think it's important to take into consideration how many of these girls intentionally have children to receive Government handouts. A single mother with two kids makes more money than most tradesmen.

  • emjayay on May 24, 2012 3:59 PM:

    Putting the blame on inequality is way too simplistic.

    On the other hand, I was going to discuss CB's post above, but really, where do you start on such a heap of uninformed and illogical statements?

    I usually find the comments here to be really interesting and insightful, but somehow that didn't happen on this post.

  • samlebon23 on May 24, 2012 11:35 PM:

    To Stephan:

    I suggest MANDATORY MENTAL STERILIZATION for people who produce crap like you.
    I am dead serious.