Poverty Causes Teen Parenting, Not the Other Way Around

Teen mothers are far from a random swath of the teen population who wind up in poverty because of a few particularly fast swimming sperm. Rather, they are likely to be in poverty already.

Teen mothers are far from a random swath of the teen population who wind up in poverty because of a few particularly fast swimming sperm. Rather, they are likely to be in poverty already. Close up of positive pregnancy test via Shutterstock

Like many Rewire readers, I have been closely following New York City’s fear- and shame-based campaign against teen pregnancy. The print ads include pictures of crying babies with captions like “Honestly Mom, chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” The ads also tell teens that if they have a kid, they will grow up to be poor. But the ads get it all wrong. Teen parenting doesn’t cause poverty; poverty causes teen parenting.

Developed by the New York Human Resources Administration (HRA), the campaign has seen a significant backlash since it was introduced last month. A group of activists in the city created a counter-campaign and demanded the city take the ads down. As Miriam Pérez noted in an article for Rewire, the backlash may have resulted in a few tweaks and improvements, but the ads are still up, and the HRA hasn’t changed the campaign’s underlying tone at all.

I finally saw the ads for myself last week. My subway car was plastered with crying babies telling their potential teen parents not to get pregnant. The ads I saw were focused on money. In one, a curly haired toddler in a bunny rabbit shirt said, “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years.” Another featured a one-and-a-half-year-old African-American girl with a bow on top of her head and tears streaming down her cheeks, saying, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars a year.”

But the one that got me, the poster that I happened to be standing in front of for my ride on the C train, was one that might almost be seen as encouraging had it not been so completely meaningless. It read, “If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty.”

I don’t know whether this statistic is accurate, though it very well might be. Let’s face it: If you graduate from high school and get a job, you are two steps ahead when it comes to not living in poverty, whether or not you get married and have kids.

But these are big “ifs” that are affected by things way out of teenagers’ control, like where they’re born, the quality of the schools in their area, whether their parents are highly educated, whether their parents are employed, the employment rate in their neighborhood, and what the economy is like when they turn 18. And none of that has to do with whether or not they become parents before they get married.

Pérez points out that supporters of the campaign are missing the point—stigmatizing teen parents won’t prevent future teen parents, because that stigma already exists. I would add that the campaign misses another very important point: Teen parenting does not cause poverty. Poverty causes teen parenting.

Cause and Effect

The ads point out that economic outcomes for teen parents and their children tend to be poor. We know that teen mothers are less likely to graduate from high school, that the children of teen mothers are also less likely to graduate from high school (one ad in the campaign points to this statistics), that teen mothers are less likely to marry, and that they are more likely to live in poverty.  It would be easy to assume that these are natural consequences of teen parenting.

In fact, research has consistently found that teen parenting itself has little impact on a young woman’s economic future. A report commissioned by the New York City Department of Health (DOH) in 2011 (and provided to me by the department) reviewed 11 recent studies and concluded that estimates of causal impact of teen childbearing on socioeconomic status range from mildly adverse to mildly protective.

Economists Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College have written a number of articles on teen childbearing. In a recent paper, they conclude, “the most rigorous research on the topic has found that teen parenthood has very little if any direct negative economic consequences.”

As I pointed in a piece for Rewire about the roots of teen pregnancy, however, this isn’t good news. Having children at a young age does not affect these young women because these young women are already on a “downward economic trajectory.”

The authors of the DOH review point out that if we want to fairly assess whether teen parenting adversely affects a young mother we have to compare her outcomes at, say, 35, not with the outcomes of other 35-year-olds who didn’t have children as teens but with her own outcomes had she not had a child in her teens. Obviously, this has to be a predication rather than a straight observation. If teen parenthood was randomly distributed throughout the population (equally probable in every young woman) we could make this predication simply by comparing the median incomes of two 35-year-old women—one with a child born before she was 18 and one without. But there is nothing random about teen parenthood.

Teens who get pregnant tend to come from more disadvantaged families than those who do not become pregnant. Moreover, among pregnant teens, those who choose abortion tend to be more advantaged than those who opt to carry the baby to term. “As a result, teen mothers are more likely than women who delay childbearing to come from poor families, to be black or Hispanic, and, before they become pregnant, to be behind in school, and to have lower academic test scores,” write the authors of the DOH report.

Teen mothers are far from a random swath of the teen population who wind up in poverty because of a few particularly fast swimming sperm. Rather, they are likely to be in poverty already.

Why Does Poverty Cause Teen Parenting?

Many researchers have attempted to explain why young women living in poverty are more likely to have children in their teens, and have concluded that growing up with few economic prospects can lead young women to choose teen parenting. Some have referred to this as a “cultural norm” or pointed to the “cycle of poverty.” Kearney and Levine attempt to put it in economic terms by operationalizing the notions of “marginalization” and “hopelessness.” They speculate that “[t]he combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) society contributes to a low perception of possible economic success, and hence leads to choices that favor short-term satisfaction—in this case the decision to have a baby while young and unmarried.”

Essentially, the researchers are suggesting that young women are making logical assessments of their future: “The intuition is that if girls perceive their chances at long-term economic success as being sufficiently low, even if they do ‘play by the rules,’ then early childbearing is more likely to be chosen.”

The economists also examined state-level data on teen pregnancy, abortion, and parenting as well socioeconomic status and found that low-income teens in areas of poverty surrounded by those of wealth are the most likely to become teen a parents. Though their research was done at the state level, New York City is certainly a place where impoverished neighborhoods are within blocks of some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country.

Rational Analysis

A look at New York City neighborhoods with high teen pregnancy rates shows that the “ifs” in the teen pregnancy ad (graduating high school and getting a job) are pretty big. (The Department of Health also provided me with a list of some of the neighborhoods with the highest teen pregnancy rates.)

For example, in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, where teen pregnancy rates are 112.9 pregnancies per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19 (compared to 72.1 per 1,000 city-wide) students may attend Bronx Regional High School. (In New York, students are not zoned for particular high schools; instead they are can choose to apply to a variety of schools both inside and outside of their neighborhood. I chose to look at neighborhood high schools in these areas to provide a sense of the community.) At Bronx Regional High School, a majority of students (73 percent) qualify for free lunch programs, only between 20 and 30 percent of its students graduate in four years, and only 1.5 percent of students are considered college-ready. The median annual income in Morrisania is $17,770, and almost half of the population is living below the poverty rate. The unemployment rate in 2010 was 17 percent.

Similarly, young women in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the teen pregnancy rate is 102.7 pregnancies per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19, may attend Bushwick Community High School. There, 81 percent of students receive free lunch, only 20 percent of its students graduate within six years, and less than 1 percent are considered college-ready. The median annual income in Bushwick is $27,338, and 39 percent of the population is living below the poverty level. The unemployment rate in 2010 was 17 percent.

Young women in these neighborhoods are well aware of their likely economic futures. And if they are doing their own cost-benefit analysis of their future before they choose teen parenting, as Kearney and Levine speculate, posters telling them they’re going to be poor if they have a baby aren’t going to do a lot of good. They are already poor, and they expect to continue to be poor. Moreover, a poster telling them that if they graduate from high school, get a job, and get married before they have kids then they won’t be poor isn’t going to help either if they’re convinced that they likely won’t graduate or get a job.

It should be noted that New York City has done a great deal to bring down rates of teen pregnancy in recent years. The Department of Health, for example, has made efforts to make condoms, contraception, and emergency contraception available to young people. That’s what makes this ad campaign so surprising and disheartening. Instead of wasting money on posters with meaningless, shame-based, and stigmatizing messages, the city should be spending its money on changing the realities of these young women’s futures. Hope is always better than humiliation.