Skip to main content

Poor girls aren't condemned to pregnancy, poverty

By Kay S. Hymowitz, Special to CNN
updated 6:43 AM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
Teenage mothers who intend to keep up their studies meet at a school in New Zealand.
Teenage mothers who intend to keep up their studies meet at a school in New Zealand.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kay Hymowitz disagrees with study that finds poor teen girls with or without babies stay poor
  • Study says girls know they will stay poor either way, so choose to have babies
  • Hymowitz says girls get out of poverty by finishing school, working and getting married
  • Hymowitz: Allowing poor girls to believe they will be losers either way is very damaging

Editor's note: Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and writes on childhood, family issues, poverty and cultural change in America. She is the author of "Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age," "Liberation's Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age" and "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Is Turning Men Into Boys."

(CNN) -- "Why is the teen birth rate in the United States so high, and why does it matter?" Those questions are posed in the title of a new paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives getting a good deal of applause on the Internet.

The answer to the first question, given by authors Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, is poverty, or more precisely, inequality. Their answer to the second question -- Does teen pregnancy matter? -- is no.

That's wrong -- or at least misleading -- on both counts.

As Kearney and Levine observe, the United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world -- higher than Western Europe, Scandinavia, South Korea and Japan. It also has the highest rates of poverty and inequality.

Kay Hymowitz
Kay Hymowitz

Almost all our teen mothers are low-income, poorly educated and low-skilled. Ever since teen pregnancy was defined as a major social concern, policymakers have tried to put a brake on the trend on the reasonable presumption that having a child in the teen years limits a girl's -- not to mention her baby's -- chances. The typical proposed solution? More sex education and contraception.

Kearney and Levine poke this story full of some well-deserved holes. Comparing otherwise similar girls who had a baby in their teen years with those who got pregnant but miscarried, they find that teen moms and their childless, or temporarily childless, sisters end up in similarly poor economic straits. Having a baby at 16 doesn't change the "low economic trajectory" of poor girls; they're going to be poor whether they're doing 2 a.m. feedings or not.

According to the authors, poor teens know this. "[I]f girls perceive their chances at long-term economic success to be sufficiently low even if they do 'play by the rules,'" they write, "then early childbearing is more likely to be chosen." Sex education and more access to birth control don't make much difference because, in economist-speak, early childbearing is a rational choice for poor girls.

But to reach this ultimate conclusion you have to ignore the considerable evidence that poor girls who "play by the rules" actually have a pretty good chance of moving out of poverty. According to the Swedish economist Markus Jantii, Americans have the lowest rates of upward mobility of any developed country; a full 42% of men born to a father in the bottom fifth quintile are still there as adults. But for women, Jantii found, the odds are very different. About three-quarters of daughters of low-income men managed to move out of poverty. In fact, when it comes to economic opportunity, American girls are much closer to their counterparts in the egalitarian Nordic countries than they are to American boys.

Scholars who study mobility have learned a bit about who the movers are. Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, both of the Brookings Institute, have calculated that if someone at the bottom does three things -- completes high school, works full time and marries before he or she has children -- the chance of staying poor falls from 12% to 2%, and the chance of joining the middle class or higher rises from 56% to 74%.

So why do so many people assume poverty is a no-exit condition? In Kearney and Levine's case, part of the problem is the no-longer-useful distinction between teen and the broader category of young, single mothers. Although we can't know for sure from reading their paper, it's a good guess that the authors are not comparing unmarried girls who had their children at 15 and girls who miscarried and did not have kids; they're comparing poor teen mothers and their peers who are likely to be single mothers in a few years.

Teen pregnancy has declined dramatically since the early 1990s; today's typical young single mother is in her early 20s. And despite having a few more years under her belt, plenty of research suggests that at 21, an unmarried mother is not much better off than her sister who really is a "teen mother."

Teen pregnancy, then, does not exactly cause poverty, but early single motherhood does limit poor girls' prospects. Have a baby when you are poor, young and single and you're probably going to stay poor. In fact, this is a universal rule. Early single motherhood, whether at 16 or 22, reduces a girl's chances of getting ahead not just in the United States, but everywhere, including Sweden and other countries with generous welfare policies.

Of course, lousy American schools and a paltry market of marriageable men are also serious impediments for mobility, as are the chaos and stress of life in poor neighborhoods. But you know what's even worse? Letting poor girls think they're going to be losers whether they have a baby or not.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT