The pathologies of inequality

From the Journal of Economic Perspectives

Why is the rate of teen childbearing is so unusually high in the United States as a whole, and in some U.S. states in particular? U.S. teens are two and a half times as likely to give birth as compared to teens in Canada, around four times as likely as teens in Germany or Norway, and almost ten times as likely as teens in Switzerland. A teenage girl in Mississippi is four times more likely to give birth than a teenage girl in New Hampshire—and 15 times more likely to give birth as a teen compared to a teenage girl in Switzerland. We examine teen birth rates alongside pregnancy, abortion, and “shotgun” marriage rates as well as the antecedent behaviors of sexual activity and contraceptive use. We demonstrate that variation in income inequality across U.S. states and developed countries can explain a sizable share of the geographic variation in teen childbearing. Our reading of the totality of evidence leads us to conclude that being on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried. Teen childbearing is explained by the low economic trajectory but is not an additional cause of later difficulties in life. Surprisingly, teen birth itself does not appear to have much direct economic consequence. Our view is that teen childbearing is so high in the United States because of underlying social and economic problems. It reflects a decision among a set of girls to “drop-out” of the economic mainstream; they choose nonmarital motherhood at a young age instead of investing in their own economic progress because they feel they have little chance of advancement.

Kearney, Melissa S., and Phillip B. Levine. 2012. “Why Is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States So High and Why Does It Matter?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(2): 141–63. DOI:10.1257/jep.26.2.141

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6 Responses to The pathologies of inequality

  1. Pedro says:

    Sounds like an interesting read. Have you read the whole report NG? If so, does the evidence show causation to the extent claimed, or are they talking up correlation? It seems to me that actual causation would throw up further interesting questions about the nature of the causation. Like, does poverty make girls (stupidly) have sex without precautions, or is it that welfare attracts poor girls to motherhood.

    Frankly, I’d be much less surprised if the evidence can only seriously support correlation. Absent a welfare incentive it would seem to me that the traits that lead to entrenched poverty also will lead to teen pregnancies.

    I think Bryan Caplan writes a lot about this.

    • john r walker says:

      Years ago I worked with long term unemployed in SW sydney, would not like to generalize, but consistent adult supervision of underprivileged young tanagers is not that common hence more opportunities for getting into trouble late at night for both boys and girls.
      The kids I worked with were more culturally impoverished than anything else, most of them had never been more than about 10 ks from their home( some were agoraphobic), most had little knowledge of the world apart from magazines like ‘who weekly’ and most of them could not cook a basic meal, frozen pizzas and burghers were staple diet.

      How does the US stack up for welfare for single mothers?

      • john r walker says:

        Should add that young long term unemployed only made up about 30% of the people we worked with. Most of them were about forty five to fifty five years of age … often they were simply viewed as too old to be worth interviewing in the first place

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Pedro,

    I’ve not read the paper, but can download it and send it to you if you’re interested.

  3. wilful says:

    Very interesting Nicholas. I’ve just posted that to my favourite board, so we’ll get some informed and some uninformed American views on it shortly.

    Pedro, there’s a direct link to the full paper.

  4. Pedro says:

    Thanks Wilful.
    Here’s Caplan recently talking about the inequalities of pathologies
    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/07/poverty_and_beh.html

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