poverty and teen mothers

Yesterday I showed the strong negative relationship between education and poverty rates. This is consistent with the story that we’ve been told…higher education is a nearly sure ticket to  keep one out of poverty.

We also tell women not to have babies as teens, especially out of marriage, if they want to avoid poverty.

A new paper, however, flips this logic on its head. Specifically, Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine argue in the Journal of Economic Perspectives that young women will often choose to become mothers if their economic outlook is grim. They write “being on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried and that poor outcomes seen later in life (relative to teens who do not have children) are simply the continuation of the original low economic trajectory.” Put another way, poor teens have babies outside of marriage because they don’t really see a better option. They end up as poor moms because they expect to be poor.

Naturally, we might wonder why (and which of) these young women expect to be poor. The following chart from their study shows the importance of the education of the teen’s mom.

Here we see that women with a nonmarital birth by age 20 are much more likely to have mother’s who are high school dropouts than those with mother’s who 1) finished high school, or 2) attended college at some time . (And that this relationship is consistent regardless on income inequality in a state.)

The takeaway here is that these young, single moms might not be poor because they are young, single moms. Rather, they are young, single moms because they are poor.


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