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Shedding light on teen pregnancy

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) released an interesting study in March that may have some bearing on how we think about welfare reform.

In “Why is the teen birth rate in the United States so high and why does it matter?” economists Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine contend that much of the conventional wisdom concerning teen pregnancy is wrong. While many believe that having a child in one’s teens dooms many young mothers to a lifetime flirting with poverty and deprivation, Kearney and Levine cite several rigorous studies that have concluded that this is not so—simply having a baby as a teenager does not make a young woman more or less likely to face a tough economic existence than she would have been without the pregnancy.

But still the fact remains that many women who have babies in their teens live in relative poverty or are on benefits. So if it’s not the baby, what causes this?

Kearney and Levine posit that the cause is the teens’ socioeconomic condition prior to conception. Many of these young women live close to the poverty line already and may see no viable route to a more prosperous future. Believing there to be few to no prospects for bettering their social and economic position, a good number of teenagers in this situation will either actively try to get pregnant or will take no precautions to prevent a pregnancy.

All developed countries are concerned about their teen birth rates because they link having a baby in one’s teens to being put into danger of falling into poverty or ending up on a benefit long-term. They often, therefore, create welfare programmes aimed at either preventing teen pregnancies (like offering discounted or free contraception) or mitigating the repercussions of teen pregnancies through such things as day-care centres in schools and grants to help young single mothers gain an apprenticeship, training or higher education.

But, if this study is to be believed, then many of these programmes may be misdirected. If it is not the fact of having a baby that is putting these teens at risk, but rather the larger socioeconomic context in which they are living and the perceived hopeless of it, then perhaps policies and programmes could do more good by addressing those contextual issues rather than the fact of the pregnancy and baby.

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