NBER Conference

Socioeconomic Disadvantage and Early Childbearing

I. Introduction

Each year, roughly five percent of teenagers give birth in the United States, a level that is considerably higher than that in any other developed country (United Nations, 2006). As we show subsequently, in the United States between 7 and 10 percent of women will give birth before the age of 18 and roughly 20 percent will give birth before the age of 20.

Concern is often expressed regarding the potential harm that teen childbearing imposes on the mother, the child, and potentially to society more broadly. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (2007) has summarized many of the statistics that are often used to support arguments about the potential pitfalls associated with teen childbearing. They highlight the fact that women who give birth as teens tend to subsequently have lower educational attainment and higher rates of welfare receipt. Their children are more likely to be born with low birth weight and have weaker performance in school. Although it is difficult to determine the extent to which the teen birth is the causal reason for these poor outcomes, these relationships are both sufficiently strong and alarming that they receive a great deal of attention.

If early childbearing is associated with poor outcomes for both mothers and their children, then why do women give birth at such an early age? Public discussions directed at answering this question have focused on a number of potential explanations: the incentives of the welfare system, poor labor market outcomes for teens, lack of access to affordable contraception, poor parental and peer influences, and socioeconomic disadvantage, among others. In this paper we focus on the last potential contributor.