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Poverty and Teen Pregnancy: Cause and Effect

No one doubts that teen pregnancy makes rising out of poverty more difficult, and teen pregnancy is more frequent where income inequality is high. But how much is cause, and how much is symptom?

 

I think the first time American culture put the fear into me about teen pregnancy, no small problem in the South, was the case of Quayle v. Murphy Brown. It makes intuitive sense: early, unwed pregnancy reduces options; reduced options cause poverty. But is teen pregnancy a cause or a symptom of poverty? Or, a better question: is it both? At the Chicago Reporter, Megan Cotrell has an interesting post on a new study that not only correlates income inequality and teen births—the results will not surprise you, although the metrics the authors use are interesting—it looks at cause and effect.

I’m always interested in how social scientists tease those answers out, and their approach is elegant:

The study calls into question a couple of ideas we take for granted in society today–that being a teen mom makes you poor, and that we can fix the problem of teen births through strategies like contraception and sex education.

[snip]

Kearney and Levine’s paper points to research that shows that young women who get pregnant and miscarry  have just as bleak of economic outcomes as those who carry their child to term.

Which leads them further into causuality:

Second, additional research they’ve done has shown the expansion of family planning services within Medicaid has had a positive impact on lowering teen pregnancy, but it has made only a small difference.

“For policies like those to work, girls need to want to avoid becoming pregnant,” said Kearney.

This reminded me of a long Steve Bogira piece from the Reader, “A Fire in the Family,” a piece that the great Robert Caro liked so much that he put his publisher in touch with Bogira. It takes an incident in which a 19-year-old woman died while saving her three-year-old and one-year-old from a fire, and explores the dynamics of her extended family, including teen pregnancies. The answers Bogira got for that specifically are a bit of a muddle: “Considering what a burden it can be, why do girls here get pregnant so early? That’s a question Lavette–and Denise, and Dovie, Rhonda, and Linda–say they can’t really answer…. That question elicits mainly shrugs.” But a couple things are suggestive, particularly the upper hand men hold in relationships for cultural and economic reasons, as well as the reality that the entire burden of avoiding teen pregnancy is put on the girls.

Also suggestive is this: “with youngsters being struck down so often, many adolescents must wonder whether they have a future at all. Whatever you want to do, you do quickly, while you still have the chance. Maybe they wouldn’t have babies so young here if they didn’t have funerals so early as well.”

 

Illustration: WPA/Library of Congress

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