Why is the teen birth rate in the United States so high and why does it matter?

J Econ Perspect. 2012 Spring;26(2):141-66. doi: 10.1257/jep.26.2.141.


Teens in the United States are far more likely to give birth than in any other industrialized country in the world. U.S. teens are two and a half times as likely to give birth as compared to teens in Canada, around four times as likely as teens in Germany or Norway, and almost 10 times as likely as teens in Switzerland. Among more developed countries, Russia has the next highest teen birth rate after the United States, but an American teenage girl is still around 25 percent more likely to give birth than her counterpart in Russia. Moreover, these statistics incorporate the almost 40 percent fall in the teen birth rate that the United States has experienced over the past two decades. Differences across U.S. states are quite dramatic as well. A teenage girl in Mississippi is four times more likely to give birth than a teenage girl in New Hampshire--and 15 times more likely to give birth as a teen compared to a teenage girl in Switzerland. This paper has two overarching goals: understanding why the teen birth rate is so high in the United States and understanding why it matters. Thus, we begin by examining multiple sources of data to put current rates of teen childbearing into the perspective of cross-country comparisons and recent historical context. We examine teen birth rates alongside pregnancy, abortion, and "shotgun" marriage rates as well as the antecedent behaviors of sexual activity and contraceptive use. We seek insights as to why the rate of teen childbearing is so unusually high in the United States as a whole, and in some U.S. states in particular. We argue that explanations that economists have tended to study are unable to account for any sizable share of the variation in teen childbearing rates across place. We describe some recent empirical work demonstrating that variation in income inequality across U.S. states and developed countries can explain a sizable share of the geographic variation in teen childbearing. To the extent that income inequality is associated with a lack of economic opportunity and heightened social marginalization for those at the bottom of the distribution, this empirical finding is potentially consistent with the ideas that other social scientists have been promoting for decades but which have been largely untested with large data sets and standard econometric methods. Our reading of the totality of evidence leads us to conclude that being on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried and that poor outcomes seen later in life (relative to teens who do not have children) are simply the continuation of the original low economic trajectory. That is, teen childbearing is explained by the low economic trajectory but is not an additional cause of later difficulties in life. Surprisingly, teen birth itself does not appear to have much direct economic consequence. Moreover, no silver bullet such as expanding access to contraception or abstinence education will solve this particular social problem. Our view is that teen childbearing is so high in the United States because of underlying social and economic problems. It reflects a decision among a set of girls to "drop-out" of the economic mainstream; they choose non-marital motherhood at a young age instead of investing in their own economic progress because they feel they have little chance of advancement. This thesis suggests that to address teen childbearing in America will require addressing some difficult social problems: in particular, the perceived and actual lack of economic opportunity among those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Induced / statistics & numerical data
  • Abortion, Induced / trends
  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior*
  • Adult
  • Birth Rate / ethnology
  • Birth Rate / trends*
  • Contraception / statistics & numerical data
  • Contraception Behavior / statistics & numerical data
  • Data Collection
  • Demography
  • Developed Countries
  • Ethnicity / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Fertility
  • Forecasting
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Humans
  • Income
  • Marital Status / statistics & numerical data
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Rate / ethnology
  • Pregnancy Rate / trends*
  • Pregnancy in Adolescence / ethnology
  • Pregnancy in Adolescence / statistics & numerical data*
  • Racial Groups / statistics & numerical data
  • Sex Education / methods
  • Sexual Abstinence
  • Sexual Behavior / ethnology
  • Sexual Behavior / statistics & numerical data*
  • Social Alienation
  • Socioeconomic Factors*
  • United States
  • Young Adult