Poverty Causes Teen Parenting, Not the Other Way Around


Like many RH Reality Check readers, I have been closely following New York City’s fear- and shame-based campaign against teen pregnancy. The print ads include pictures of crying babies with captions like “Honestly Mom, chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” The ads also tell teens that if they have a kid, they will grow up to be poor. But the ads get it all wrong. Teen parenting doesn’t cause poverty; poverty causes teen parenting.

Developed by the New York Human Resources Administration (HRA), the campaign has seen a significant backlash since it was introduced last month. A group of activists in the city created a counter-campaign and demanded the city take the ads down. As Miriam Pérez noted in an article for RH Reality Check, the backlash may have resulted in a few tweaks and improvements, but the ads are still up, and the HRA hasn’t changed the campaign’s underlying tone at all.

I finally saw the ads for myself last week. My subway car was plastered with crying babies telling their potential teen parents not to get pregnant. The ads I saw were focused on money. In one, a curly haired toddler in a bunny rabbit shirt said, “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years.” Another featured a one-and-a-half-year-old African-American girl with a bow on top of her head and tears streaming down her cheeks, saying, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars a year.”

But the one that got me, the poster that I happened to be standing in front of for my ride on the C train, was one that might almost be seen as encouraging had it not been so completely meaningless. It read, “If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty.”

I don’t know whether this statistic is accurate, though it very well might be. Let’s face it: If you graduate from high school and get a job, you are two steps ahead when it comes to not living in poverty, whether or not you get married and have kids.

But these are big “ifs” that are affected by things way out of teenagers’ control, like where they’re born, the quality of the schools in their area, whether their parents are highly educated, whether their parents are employed, the employment rate in their neighborhood, and what the economy is like when they turn 18. And none of that has to do with whether or not they become parents before they get married.

Pérez points out that supporters of the campaign are missing the point—stigmatizing teen parents won’t prevent future teen parents, because that stigma already exists. I would add that the campaign misses another very important point: Teen parenting does not cause poverty. Poverty causes teen parenting.

Cause and Effect

The ads point out that economic outcomes for teen parents and their children tend to be poor. We know that teen mothers are less likely to graduate from high school, that the children of teen mothers are also less likely to graduate from high school (one ad in the campaign points to this statistics), that teen mothers are less likely to marry, and that they are more likely to live in poverty.  It would be easy to assume that these are natural consequences of teen parenting.

In fact, research has consistently found that teen parenting itself has little impact on a young woman’s economic future. A report commissioned by the New York City Department of Health (DOH) in 2011 (and provided to me by the department) reviewed 11 recent studies and concluded that estimates of causal impact of teen childbearing on socioeconomic status range from mildly adverse to mildly protective.

Economists Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College have written a number of articles on teen childbearing. In a recent paper, they conclude, “the most rigorous research on the topic has found that teen parenthood has very little if any direct negative economic consequences.”

As I pointed in a piece for RH Reality Check about the roots of teen pregnancy, however, this isn’t good news. Having children at a young age does not affect these young women because these young women are already on a “downward economic trajectory.”

The authors of the DOH review point out that if we want to fairly assess whether teen parenting adversely affects a young mother we have to compare her outcomes at, say, 35, not with the outcomes of other 35-year-olds who didn’t have children as teens but with her own outcomes had she not had a child in her teens. Obviously, this has to be a predication rather than a straight observation. If teen parenthood was randomly distributed throughout the population (equally probable in every young woman) we could make this predication simply by comparing the median incomes of two 35-year-old women—one with a child born before she was 18 and one without. But there is nothing random about teen parenthood.

Teens who get pregnant tend to come from more disadvantaged families than those who do not become pregnant. Moreover, among pregnant teens, those who choose abortion tend to be more advantaged than those who opt to carry the baby to term. “As a result, teen mothers are more likely than women who delay childbearing to come from poor families, to be black or Hispanic, and, before they become pregnant, to be behind in school, and to have lower academic test scores,” write the authors of the DOH report.

Teen mothers are far from a random swath of the teen population who wind up in poverty because of a few particularly fast swimming sperm. Rather, they are likely to be in poverty already.

Why Does Poverty Cause Teen Parenting?

Many researchers have attempted to explain why young women living in poverty are more likely to have children in their teens, and have concluded that growing up with few economic prospects can lead young women to choose teen parenting. Some have referred to this as a “cultural norm” or pointed to the “cycle of poverty.” Kearney and Levine attempt to put it in economic terms by operationalizing the notions of “marginalization” and “hopelessness.” They speculate that “[t]he combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) society contributes to a low perception of possible economic success, and hence leads to choices that favor short-term satisfaction—in this case the decision to have a baby while young and unmarried.”

Essentially, the researchers are suggesting that young women are making logical assessments of their future: “The intuition is that if girls perceive their chances at long-term economic success as being sufficiently low, even if they do ‘play by the rules,’ then early childbearing is more likely to be chosen.”

The economists also examined state-level data on teen pregnancy, abortion, and parenting as well socioeconomic status and found that low-income teens in areas of poverty surrounded by those of wealth are the most likely to become teen a parents. Though their research was done at the state level, New York City is certainly a place where impoverished neighborhoods are within blocks of some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country.

Rational Analysis

A look at New York City neighborhoods with high teen pregnancy rates shows that the “ifs” in the teen pregnancy ad (graduating high school and getting a job) are pretty big. (The Department of Health also provided me with a list of some of the neighborhoods with the highest teen pregnancy rates.)

For example, in the Morrisania neighborhood of the Bronx, where teen pregnancy rates are 112.9 pregnancies per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19 (compared to 72.1 per 1,000 city-wide) students may attend Bronx Regional High School. (In New York, students are not zoned for particular high schools; instead they are can choose to apply to a variety of schools both inside and outside of their neighborhood. I chose to look at neighborhood high schools in these areas to provide a sense of the community.) At Bronx Regional High School, a majority of students (73 percent) qualify for free lunch programs, only between 20 and 30 percent of its students graduate in four years, and only 1.5 percent of students are considered college-ready. The median annual income in Morrisania is $17,770, and almost half of the population is living below the poverty rate. The unemployment rate in 2010 was 17 percent.

Similarly, young women in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the teen pregnancy rate is 102.7 pregnancies per 1,000 young women ages 15 to 19, may attend Bushwick Community High School. There, 81 percent of students receive free lunch, only 20 percent of its students graduate within six years, and less than 1 percent are considered college-ready. The median annual income in Bushwick is $27,338, and 39 percent of the population is living below the poverty level. The unemployment rate in 2010 was 17 percent.

Young women in these neighborhoods are well aware of their likely economic futures. And if they are doing their own cost-benefit analysis of their future before they choose teen parenting, as Kearney and Levine speculate, posters telling them they’re going to be poor if they have a baby aren’t going to do a lot of good. They are already poor, and they expect to continue to be poor. Moreover, a poster telling them that if they graduate from high school, get a job, and get married before they have kids then they won’t be poor isn’t going to help either if they’re convinced that they likely won’t graduate or get a job.

It should be noted that New York City has done a great deal to bring down rates of teen pregnancy in recent years. The Department of Health, for example, has made efforts to make condoms, contraception, and emergency contraception available to young people. That’s what makes this ad campaign so surprising and disheartening. Instead of wasting money on posters with meaningless, shame-based, and stigmatizing messages, the city should be spending its money on changing the realities of these young women’s futures. Hope is always better than humiliation.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/amanda.kazarian Amanda Kazarian

    I have to send articles like this to people who get all “OMG YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND AREN’T HAVING BABIES WHY???!!111″

    Um, maybe because we don’t want to live in a low income studio apartment in a shit neighborhood while taking care of a baby we can’t afford until we hate each other and eventually get divorced from stress and unhappiness. Its such a simple concept why can’t people get it through their damn heads. My husband and I are living well because we DON’T have kids.

    • HeilMary1

      And child-free “abstinent” nuns and priests made similar choices because they fear the expenses, squalor and stress of direct parenting also, but their valid fear doesn’t stop them from their killer hypocrisy of forcing such misery on the openly sexually active. If it’s OK for clergy to be child-free, it’s OK for the rest of us!

    • Ceunei

      From my personal experience, it was the house that almost broke us, not the kid. But, if we had more than one kid (which we can’t, thank heavens, and you won’t believe how may people try to get us to have more until I stop them cold with my one baby body story), my opinion might be different.

    • Guest

      i have 10 kids motherfucker and i live in a castle

  • Bill Falls

    Thank you, Martha Kempner, for making sense of an issue that is otherwise buried under prejudice, denial, and smug ignorance or cynicism on the part of policymakers. Kudos to the NYC DOH for funding the research that uncovered the real role of poverty in teen childbearing. I hope they are communicating their findings to City Hall and to state and federal politicians who have the power to address the roots of poverty. It will take political courage, since the U.S. has been cutting the poor adrift more and more since the Reagan “revolution.”

  • ddaba

    I was checking to see ol’ Martha’s sociology degree, but didn’t find it. First of all, it’s not an either/or proposition. Poverty does lead to teen parents, but being a parent in your teens also leads to poverty. The fact that ol’ Martha had the idiocy to make the statement, “I don’t know whether this statistic is accurate” in her article leads me to believe she’s as bad a researcher as she is a writer. Let me try to put this in words you might understand, Martha: Even if you are writing an opinion piece, do your research! No opinion piece should include the phrase “I don’t know whether this statistic is accurate.”

  • swimoveramat

    So you spend the whole article arguing that teen pregnancy does not affect your future because most teens who get pregnant are already on a downward course. THEN, you end by saying we should do things to prevent teen pregnancy. What? I don’t get it. If it doesn’t affect the future, then why try to prevent it?

    • Ceunei

      Because no one wants to pay to well educate the less advantaged children from the poorer set?

      That is my guess…except I’ve heard it straight from the mouth of a right winged former friend…until I finally pointed out her similarly right winged brother has two unplanned children of his own feeding off the system. That shut her yap up right quick.

  • lk1066

    Why does every discussion of pregnancy, teen or otherwise, make it seem like
    the only person involved in pregnancy is the female. Women don’t get pregnant
    without male involvement, but no one tries to alter male sexual behavior. Males
    are only held accountable, if then, AFTER the fact. Even then, women are criticized
    for having sex with a male who doesn’t support the child. It’s all women’s fault.
    There was also a sense of hopelessness about this that scared me. It’s as if
    young women who have babies not only feel hopeless about their futures before
    they have children, but that they are correct in that feeling, regardless of child-bearing.
    Perhaps better outcomes would prevail if NYC and others would shift the emphasis
    from trying to change pregnancy rates and keep people from having sex to trying to
    change the conditions that cause societal hopelessness. Put the money into education
    and programs to improve teens’ self-respect and job prospects, continue to make contraception available and forget about stopping people—men and women, young and old—from having sex.

    • Ceunei

      I notice that, too. By and large, males are still let of the hook for the job of parenting…even now in 2013.
      I’ve seen countless posts refuting mine that condoms work, because how can a male be expected to stop himself long enough to put one on? I, of course, remain unmoved by such opinions as my partner and I used condoms as our birth control for six years straight (my body will not tolerate birth control hormones without going into preeclampsia). Only after we stopped using condoms did we get pregnant with our planned and wanted baby. Coincidence?

      Oh, we did bother to get married before we dropped the birth control…all part of the plan. Why? Because babies from married couples have more rights than babies from unmarried couples, even now.

      • lk1066

        Birth control pills made me seriously depressed, so I ditched them also.
        I faithfully used a diaphragm and spermicidal jelly for 14 years before
        I decided to have a kid….It worked. The effectiveness of contraception
        depends a lot on consistent and proper use. I had sex one time in my
        lifetime without contraception; I have one child.

      • lk1066

        Birth control pills made me seriously depressed, so I ditched them also.
        I faithfully used a diaphragm and spermicidal jelly for 14 years before
        I decided to have a kid….It worked. The effectiveness of contraception
        depends a lot on consistent and proper use. I had sex one time in my
        lifetime without contraception; I have one child.

  • JGarcia

    As a highschool student, I have met and come across a few teenagers who have gotten pregnant. This article states that it is poverty that causes teen parenting and not the other way around like some believe. I have to say that this statement does hold some truth to it; the research that more financially privileged families are less likely to have teen pregnancy than less financially privileged families proves the fact. What is still unclear to me is exactly why. That article states that it is because teens in lower privileged families do not see a stable future that will fit their vision of satisfaction so they seek the satisfaction they want at that moment. For some teens, they decide to have a baby.

    This is a really interesting theory that I am actually beginning to believe, although there is an ugly truth. The decision these teens make fulfill the cycle of poverty that is in the book The Working Poor by David K. Shipler. Having the baby at the age they are when they are not financially stable traps them from moving forward, or at least makes it really difficult. This keeps them less financially privileged which makes the child grow up the same way the parent did and that continues the pattern, or the cycle of poverty.

  • Chepe

    I’m a high school senior and I’ve seen many young girls get pregnant at the early age of 15 or 16. I also know many teenage girls who have dropped out of high school to take care of their newborn, and I’ve seen how this has affected their education dramatically. Poverty plays a big role in why teenage girls are getting pregnant, either they do not have the proper education to teach them about safe sex or they just get pregnant because they need or want the attention of others. In the book The Working Poor by David K. Shipler there are reasons to why teenage girls get pregnant, and what leads them to getting pregnant in the first place. The reason why poverty plays a big role in teenage pregnancy is because they see that their family is in much need and the government is not helping them as they should so they get pregnant so they can receive food stamps or welfare. Others get pregnant because they don’t have the caring parents that most people have, so they find the love somewhere else until they get rapped.

  • bremipe

    When you talk about the adds and what they are referring to I do not think that these ads should be allowed. It is sad to see how they are turning down teen mothers and underestimating their abilities.I agree that teen pregnancy does not contribute to poverty and that it is the other way around because for some families having children means that they are allowed to get certain help from the government or have these kids help them out when they got to a certain age. I believe that these ads should also be taken down these young mothers are being set to lower their standards and believe they will not make it if they have kids but this is not true.They should be motivated to go on ahead. The following quote was supported by what accurate statistic? “If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty.” I disagree with this quote because it all depends on the parent and the way the parent was raised and their mentality. The fact that teen mothers are less likely to graduate is because of all the stress they are going through in school. Also what contributes to the lack of graduates is that the school does not provide support for these young women. If there is such small impact on economic difficulties with young teen women then why is there so much stereotypes going around? Yes, these young teens who are now moving into being teen mothers may fall into the cycle of poverty but that is only if they do not have the support to be able to move on in life. I really like this quote “Hope is always better than humiliation.” because I can in a way feel like that is my belief on many things within life. For this situation I would rather have hope brought from knowing that I was going to be a teen mother than be humiliated because I am a teen mother and have people with negative thought where they tell me I will not make it with a child, or I might just take the negative and make that my motivation to want to move on and prove everyone who doubted me.

    • Guest

      Kos okhatak

  • bremipe

    As a high school senior I have personally encountered friends who fall under this circumstances yet they have been able to continue on with their lives but because they relied on a lot of support from their family, friends, and teachers.
    When you talk about the adds and what they are referring to I do not think that these ads should be allowed. It is sad to see how they are turning down teen mothers and underestimating their abilities.I agree that teen pregnancy does not contribute to poverty and that it is the other way around because for some families having children means that they are allowed to get certain help from the government or have these kids help them out when they got to a certain age. I believe that these ads should also be taken down these young mothers are being set to lower their standards and believe they will not make it if they have kids but this is not true.They should be motivated to go on ahead.
    The following quote was supported by what accurate statistic? “If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty.” I disagree with this quote because it all depends on the parent and the way the parent was raised and their mentality. The fact that teen mothers are less likely to graduate is because of all the stress they are going through in school. Also what contributes to the lack of graduates is that the school does not provide support for these young women.
    If there is such small impact on economic difficulties with young teen women then why is there so much stereotypes going around? Yes, these young teens who are now moving into being teen mothers may fall into the cycle of poverty but that is only if they do not have the support to be able to move on in life. I really like this quote “Hope is always better than humiliation.” because I can in a way feel like that is my belief on many things within life. For this situation I would rather have hope brought from knowing that I was going to be a teen mother than be humiliated because I am a teen mother and have people with negative thought where they tell me I will not make it with a child, or I might just take the negative and make that my motivation to want to move on and prove everyone who doubted me.

  • Amy Hill

    Isn’t this the same city where you can be arrested as a prostitute just for possession of a condom? Hmm, I wonder why poor young minority girls who don’t want to be hasseled by the cops might have an unplanned pregnancy?