Wellesley Study Investigates Reasons for Record Lows in U.S. Teen Birth Rates

April 9, 2012

Wellesley study investigates reasons for record lows in U.S. teen birth rates; shows abstinence-only policies, sex-ed, and the recession have little impact

Research also shows income inequality is a key factor in geographic patterns:
--United States has more teen births than France (or any other developed country) partly because income inequality is higher in the U.S.
--A poor teen in New Hampshire is more likely to give birth than a poor teen in Texas, study finds

WELLESLEY, Mass.—The CDC announced in April that U.S. teen birth rates have hit record lows, and supporters of abstinence-only policies and mandatory sex education alike are claiming credit. However, newly published research coauthored by Wellesley economist Phillip B. Levine shows that neither factor had a significant impact on the decline. Levine’s study, which investigates the downward trend in teen births over the past 20 years, found:

  • Recent downward trend in U.S. teen birth rate largely unrelated to abstinence-only, mandatory sex education, or the recession
  • Increased contraceptive use and reduction in sexual activity contributed roughly equally      

The findings are spotlighted in “Explaining Recent Trends in the U.S. Teen Birth Rate,” a working paper published in March by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Levine, who tWellesley Economist Phillip B. Levineeaches economic analyses of social policies as Katharine Coman and A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Economics at Wellesley College, said of the CDC’s report: “Although it is great news that the teen birth rate continues to fall, and dramatically so in the past few years, more teens still give birth in the United States than in any other developed country.” The U.S teen birth is more than triple the rates in Spain, Japan, Sweden, and Switzerland.

He added, “It is also important to note that high quality research indicates that none of the standard explanations given (like sex education, abstinence only, or the recession) can explain much of the decline.”

The data showed that expanded access to family services through Medicaid and reduced welfare benefits had statistically relevant impact on the lowered rates. However, these factors accounted for only 12% of the teen birth rate decline. Furthermore, Levine and his coauthor, University of Maryland economist Melissa Schettini Kearney, found that abstinence only or mandatory sex education had no impact on teen birth rates. The researchers determined that these factors, which are typically cited as the factors most likely to impact teen pregnancy, actually explain very little of the recent trend. Levine and Schettini call for further investigation of economic influences.

With these findings, along with their earlier work, Levine and Kearney shed light on common misperceptions around teen pregnancy and its causes.

In 2011, Levine and Kearney were the first to conduct a large-scale empirical investigation to study the role that income inequality plays in determining early, non-marital childbearing. Using econometric analysis of large-scale data sets, Levine and Kearney discovered that variation in inequality across the United States and other developed countries can account for a sizable share of the stunning geographic variation in teen childbearing. They found that teens of low socioeconomic status were more likely to give birth if they lived in a state with high income inequality. Moving from a low inequality state to a high inequality state increased their rate of teen childbearing by 5 percentage points.

According to Levine, it’s long been argued that a sense of hopelessness and despair is closely related to higher rates of teen pregnancy. Levine explained, “If a young woman sees little chance of improving her life by investing in her education and career skills, or by marriage, she is more likely to choose the security, immediate gratification and happiness of parenthood. Our work captures this idea in a standard economics model of decision-making.”

Levine and Kearney derive a formal economic model that incorporates the perception of economic success as a key factor driving one’s decision to have an early, non-marital birth. Their findings show that for poor women living in locations of high inequality, limited opportunity reduces the opportunity cost of early, non-marital childbearing and thereby increases its occurrence.         

Levine and Kearney conclude that teen childbearing is so high in the U.S. because of underlying social and economic problems. In other words, teenage childbearing is a symptom, not a cause of poverty.

The findings bear important implications for U.S. policymakers. According to Levine, who has closely studied the economics of social policies, the high rate of teen childbearing in the United States matters because it is a marker of a social problem, rather than the social problem itself. “If the problem is perceived lack of economic opportunity, then policy interventions need to attack that. Access to early childhood education programs and college financial aid, for instance, have proven to be successful in improving the earnings—and sense of hope—of participants. Our findings show that these programs may also have the added benefit of lowering teen pregnancy rates. Giving teens a sense of opportunity and hope may be a much more powerful prescription than abstinence-only, sex education, or birth control combined.”

The research, co-authored by Phillip B. Levine and Melissa Schettini Kearney, is published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) and available online:

Explaining Recent Trends in the U.S. Teen Birth Rate” Melissa Schettini Kearney, Phillip B. Levine

Why is the Teen Birth Rate in the United States so High and Why Does it Matter?” Melissa Schettini Kearney, Phillip B. Levine

Income Inequality and Early Non-Marital Childbearing: An Economic Exploration of the "Culture of Despair" Melissa Schettini Kearney, Phillip B. Levine

About Phillip B. Levine, Katharine Coman and A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Economics

About Wellesley College

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,400 undergraduate students from 50 states and more than 75 countries.

Press Contacts
Sofiya Cabalquinto, Wellesley College, 781.283.3321, scabalqu@wellesley.edu
Anne Yu, Wellesley College, 781.283.3321, ayu@wellesley.edu