Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 26 No. 2 (Spring 2012)


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Why Is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States So High and Why Does It Matter?

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Kearney, Melissa S., and Phillip B. Levine. 2012. "Why Is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States So High and Why Does It Matter?" Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(2): 141-63.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.26.2.141


Why is the rate of teen childbearing is so unusually high in the United States as a whole, and in some U.S. states in particular? 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 ten times as likely as teens in Switzerland. 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. 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 demonstrate that variation in income inequality across U.S. states and developed countries can explain a sizable share of the geographic variation in teen childbearing. 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. 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. 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 nonmarital motherhood at a young age instead of investing in their own economic progress because they feel they have little chance of advancement.

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Kearney, Melissa S. (U MD)
Levine, Phillip B. (Wellesley College)

JEL Classifications

J13: Fertility; Family Planning; Child Care; Children; Youth
R23: Urban, Rural, Regional, and Transportation Economics: Regional Migration; Regional Labor Markets; Population; Neighborhood Characteristics


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