When it comes to early pregnancy, surprising new evidence indicates that Romney and most everyone else have it backward: Having a baby early does not hamper a young woman’s economic prospects, as Romney implies. Rather, young women choose to become mothers because their economic outlook is so objectively bleak.
The problem of teen/single/unwed motherhood is one of the relatively few issues liberals and conservatives seem to be able to agree on these days. The right is more likely to pitch the issue in terms of marital status (“single moms”) and the left in terms of simple age (“teen moms”), but both sides reach the same basic conclusion. Raising a child is difficult. Raising a child without help from a partner is very difficult. Doing it at an early age is going to substantially disrupt one’s educational or economic life at a critical moment, with potentially devastating consequences for one’s lifetime. Therefore, preventing early nonmarital pregnancies (whether through liberal doses of contraception and sex education, or the conservative prescription of abstinence cheerleading) would seem universally desirable.
In fact, low-income women who gave birth as teens aren’t poor because they gave birth as teens; they chose to give birth as teens because they’re poor.
What really causes birthrates to vary are demographics and state-level economic variables. In particular, teen girls whose mothers have little education are much more likely to give birth than girls with better-educated mothers. Even more interesting is the way that economic inequality amplifies nonmarital births to teen moms. In particular, “women with low socioeconomic status have more teen, nonmarital births when they live in higher-inequality locations, all else equal.” The measure of inequality used here is not the fabled gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, but the gap between the median income and incomes at the 10th percentile. It measures, in other words, the gap between poor people and the local typical household.* It may be a proxy for how plausible it would be for a girl from a low-income household to rise into the middle class. The more difficult that rise seems, the more births there are to unmarried teens.
The upshot is that teen motherhood is much more a consequence of intense poverty than its cause. Preaching good behavior won’t do anything to reduce its incidence, and even handing out free birth control won’t contribute meaningfully to solving economic problems. Instead, family life seems to follow real economic opportunities. Where poor people can see that hard work and “playing by the rules” will reward them, they’re pretty likely to do just that. Where the system looks stacked against them, they’re more likely to abandon mainstream norms. Those who do so by becoming single teen moms end up fairing poorly in life, but those bad outcomes seem to be a result of bleak underlying circumstances rather than poor choices.
In other words: Class mobility is key. And where teenage girls don’t see much potential for moving upward — and they’re often right in that assessment — they have babies earlier than they would if their prospects were more promising.