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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT