The teen birthrate in the US is much higher than that of other developed countries, and researchers and policymakers have blamed everything from censorious parents to abstinence-only sex education. But economists Phillip Levine and Melissa Kearney approached the issue a different way: in a study forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, they looked at income inequality across a variety of countries and U.S. states, and found that as that inequality rose, so did the teen birthrate. They found that low-income teenagers in states with high income inequality were significantly more likely to give birth than those in states that were more equal — and countries with high inequality had high teen birthrates as well. Overall, Levine and Kearney say between 10 and 50 percent of the geographical variation in teen birthrates is probably due to differences in economic inequality.
The graph below plots both inequality and teen birthrate in developed countries: the US has the highest levels of both.
The study authors say teenagers in high-inequality areas may have kids at a young age essentially because they might as well — they may be told to wait, finish school and get a good job, but if they don't believe they can really achieve a better life that way, they may choose to have a child instead. They write that high birthrates in high-inequality areas reflect "a decision among a set of girls to 'drop-out' of the economic mainstream; they choose nonmarital motherhood at a young age instead of investing in their own economic progress because they feel they have little chance of advancement."
And Levine and Kearney argue that for many low-income teens, having a child really is to some degree a choice, not an accident. Though most teenagers say their pregnancies were unintended, another study found that 20 percent of older teens who were having unprotected sex eschewed birth control either because they wanted to get pregnant or they didn't care. That's ten times the number who said they couldn't afford birth control, and the second-most common explanation for unprotected sex (the most common was the frustratingly vague response "other reason").
Levine and Kearney also think that sex ed (abstinence-only or otherwise) has little effect on the teen birthrate. In a separate study, also published this year, they found that neither form of sex ed played any observable role in the recent drop in births to teens. Improved access to family planning services had an effect, but only a small one.
Really, they say, teen pregnancy is more of a social problem than a sexual one. And the best way to solve it isn't to target pregnancy directly, as sex education programs try to do, but rather to improve girls' lives as a whole. Their research doesn't show that sex ed is useless — it may still help kids protect themselves from STDs or learn to communicate with partners. But for preventing pregnancy, says Levine, the best programs are actually those that give girls more opportunities, such as by helping them go to college.
This might seem like a bipartisan solution, since it requires neither preaching abstinence nor handing out condoms. But, says Levine, there's a problem: "Buying condoms is a cheap solution. Abstinence-only is really cheap. Improving life chances is not." Actually giving low-income girls more opportunities is going to take a lot of work, and money. Whether either is forthcoming will depend on "whether we have the political will to think critically about the evidence," Levine says, "and that is where I am skeptical."