Wellesley Economist Finds Income Inequality Drives Teen Birth Rate

BOSTON — The term “income inequality” and the idea of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent became part of the vernacular almost overnight following the explosion of the Occupy movement last year. But for the first time, researchers say they have now found a connection between income inequality and the teen birth rate. Despite declining in recent years, the U.S. still has the highest rate among developed countries.

U.S. teen births are the highest in the developed world. (Courtesy Wellesley College/Soe Lin Post)

WBUR’s Morning Edition host Bob Oakes sat down with Wellesley College economist Phillip Levine to talk about his new research, to be published in the May 22 edition of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Levine said he and his fellow researcher, University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney, set out to solve the mystery of the tremendous variation in teen birth rates across geographic locations. They zeroed in on one variable between those locations: the gap between the middle class and the poor — in other words, income inequality at the bottom end. And while other research has shown that poor teens are considerably more likely to give birth than those whose families are at middle- and high-income levels, Levine said the issue goes much deeper.

“What really seems to exacerbate the problem is when you’re poor and you live in a place where there’s a great degree of income inequality,” Levine explained. “So if you’re poor in a high inequality location, then you’re really much more likely to give birth as a teenager.”

It’s about economic opportunity, according to Levine. Much of the previous research into the sociology and ethnography of teen birth has focused on things like despair and hopelessness, he said.

In a place of great income inequality, Levine said, “if you’re at the bottom of the distribution and it’s very difficult to move up from that position in the distribution, that may lead to the hopelessness and the despair…”

This explains the difference in teen birth rates between U.S. states and between different countries, according to Levine, who calls that variation between countries very large.

“The U.S. is a huge outlier, even after the decline that we’ve experienced,” Levine said, referring to the 44 percent decline in the U.S. teen birth rate over the last two decades. He said his research found that the difference in income inequality between the U.S. and other countries can explain upwards of half of the difference in teen childbearing rates.

Massachusetts presents an interesting challenge to the researchers, however. Despite wide income inequality, the state has the third-lowest teen birth rate in the country, at 19.6 per 1,000 births among females 15-19 years old. Levine speculates overall education may play a role.

“It’s a plausible story that perhaps our education system is better, so that the opportunity that those at the bottom experience may feel greater even though we have a high degree of income inequality,” he said.

New Hampshire and Vermont have the lowest teen birth rates in the nation, and also have low income inequality. The highest rates of teen births are in Mississippi (64.2 per 1,000 births), New Mexico (63.9 per 1,000 births) and Texas (60.7 per 1,000 births).

As for programs long advocated to reduce teen pregnancies, such as abstinence education, sex education, contraceptive access and welfare reform, Levine said research shows they have had very little impact on teen childbearing. The problem, he said, is that those programs focus on behaviors that happen right before the pregnancy. He said the policy focus should shift to helping move girls off of a track where they feel a lack of opportunity, through investments in programs like early childhood education and schooling in general.

“What we would hope is that it would lead women to see, as they move through their teenage years, that there is reason to continue on in school and to work hard and to play by the rules, and not having a teen birth would be a result of that,” Levine said. Asked whether teen pregnancy should be viewed as an economic priority as opposed to a political football, Levine says yes.

“In some sense, both sides of the political spectrum, from our perspective, are arguing about solutions that it really doesn’t matter which ones get adopted,” he said. “They’re probably not going to get the job done. We think that the starting point of the political discourse needs to be moved… to much earlier in life.”

– You can read the complete study, below:


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  • Sgt JR

    Follow up this study and match the regional data with the availability of entitlement programs and I’d wager there is a direct correlation.

    • Fireh2o

      For every complex question there is a simple answer – that is wrong. The other industrial countries with lower teen birth rates have as many or more entitlements as the U.S.

  • Rockie

    Yes, Mass. has a very low teen birth rate overall, but we also have one of the biggest racial disparities in the country in our teen births. Some cities in Massachusetts have very high rates – I wish WBUR had gone into that.

  • http://obbop.wordpress.com/ obbop

    “The highest rates of teen births are in Mississippi (64.2 per 1,000
    births), New Mexico (63.9 per 1,000 births) and Texas (60.7 per 1,000

    Chicanos and the culture they bring with them.


    A myth from a bygone era.

    Even a mere few hours research into the ongoing invasion of the once-sovereign USA can be an eye-opener.

    The elite-owned mass media will not present reality; just not politically correct and, besides, the ruling elites, corporate USA, etc. wants the invasion for their own greedy self-serving interests.

    Enjoy the oligarchy headed your way.

    • aligatorhardt

       Instead of blaming Chicanos, the real target should be  Catholicism, as it is the religious based aversion to birth control that influence people to have big families. What is the most prevalent religion in Latino cultures? It is Catholic.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_LLH7SFRBBDZ54YLFVP6POB6XAI ANNA

     This comment from an editorial in yesterday’s NYT is very telling:


    live in a very small town where most of the residents are poor, 33% of
    the teenager girls between 15 and 19 have gotten pregnant, 26% of the
    population is dependent on the federal government, and they vote
    Republican. Why do all the women I know in town vote Republican? Because
    they don’t know anything that is in the news. They think Republicans
    mean a strong military and they don’t like abortions. Even though most
    of the women I know had their first child as a teenager, they want the
    same thing for their daughters. They are so happy and so proud of them
    when they get pregnant at 16. People really don’t seem to want anything
    different for their children than they had themselves. Lots of babies.
    Different fathers for each baby. Become a grandma at 32 because your 16
    year old is pregnant. If you talk about the war on women, they stare at
    you blankly because they don’t know anything they haven’t heard from
    their minister, or their current boyfriend. Vote Republican but live on
    government aid. And before any commenters think this is a racial issue,
    the town I live in is almost totally white.
    May 19, 2012 at 10:43 p.m

  • Klepter

    Poor people in an area where everyone is poor are more likely to be poor because of where they live, not because they are idiots.  Poor people in areas that are more prosperous are more likely to be poor because they are idots.  End of study.

    • aligatorhardt

      Contrary to what you might think, living next to a wealthy person does not mean that dollars will fall into your yard.

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    Sample size 22?

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