How much does teen pregnancy cost?

Nobody is advocating in favor of teen pregnancy. Whether agendas are feminist, economic, or moral, there’s a consensus that it is better to delay pregnancy. What, then, does the latest Demography article on the effects of teen pregnancy contribute? First, it explains that scholars may not agree on the estimated costs of teen pregnancy because different groups of teens actually experience different costs. Second, it makes policy recommendations informed by the background factors that help predict how much a teen pregnancy really costs.

Let me take you to sub-Saharan Africa for a moment to help emphasize the importance of class differences in the United States with respect to teen pregnancy. A little-known fact is that only a small proportion of school dropouts in Africa are pregnancy-related. How can this be on a continent where educational attainment is low and teen childbearing is common? It isn’t much of a paradox when you consider that the girl who dropped out of school at age twelve wasn’t pregnant at the time, but she was much more likely to become pregnant as a married fifteen-year-old than her counterpart who was still in school and still unmarried at fifteen.

There are two realities relevant to teen pregnancies in the U.S. embedded in my African example. One is that the girl who dropped out of school early wasn’t on the fast track for upward mobility, with or without early pregnancy. The other one is that the same conditions that limit economic prospects also reduce the cost of early pregnancy: If dreams of a well-paying job are just pipe dreams, you sacrifice very little by devoting part of your adolescence to childrearing. Or, as Christina Diaz and Jeremy Feil put it in the recent Demography article, “opportunity costs are concentrated among those with the most opportunity.”

So back on this side of the ocean, I introduce you to Anne and Trisha. Anne was from a wealthy Connecticut community and a senior in high school who had already been accepted to an Ivy League college when she became pregnant. Trisha lived in Southeast D.C. with her 30-year-old mother and her 45-year-old grandmother when she became pregnant. If I were to ask whether these pregnancies would affect their futures the same way, it would clearly be a rhetorical question. It is almost like asking if the African girl—she deserves a name too, so let’s call her Akua—would have gone to university if she hadn’t gotten pregnant at 15. Akua and Trisha both have low opportunity costs from teen pregnancy because they had bleak socioeconomic prospects prior to becoming pregnant. Neither of their pregnancies even has the potential to keep them out of the Ivy League.

Diaz and Feil estimate young women like Anne have earnings between the ages of 25 and 35 that are 67 percent lower than their peers who did not become pregnant as teens, but among young women like Trisha, earnings are 23 percent lower than among their peers. These differences are still greater when they estimate the costs of teen childbearing rather than teen pregnancy.

Through their research, Diaz and Feil also emphasize that teen pregnancy also costs less among those with greater social supports. Akua likely has a lot of social support for childbearing while married. Trisha doesn’t share all of that advantage, but she does have a mother and a grandmother who were teen mothers themselves. Diaz and Feil found that teen pregnancy exacted higher costs among teens whose mothers were older, and among teens who had weak relationships with their parents. On the positive side, this means that strong parental support can buffer the negative effects of teen pregnancy. On the negative side, it means that teens who become pregnant in families and communities where early fertility is not normative suffer greater consequences. Differently put, women who are less prepared for motherhood by communities that emphasize (and model) other adult roles, or who face greater social stigma associated with teen pregnancy because it is rare, “pay” more for teen pregnancy.

There are very few social scientists who advocate policy interventions targeted toward those with higher socioeconomic status, but this is exactly where Diaz and Feil end up. They argue that their findings support the conclusion that “efforts to prevent early pregnancies will have limited impacts on the disadvantaged teens most likely to experience early fertility.” In other words, disadvantaged teens are more likely than their wealthy counterparts to get pregnant precisely because they are rational actors: They have more social support and face fewer economic costs. Dissuading folks from a rational choice is a lot harder than dissuading them from a costly one, plus the payback from successful pregnancy prevention is magnified in wealthier communities. For disadvantaged women, Diaz and Feil advocate policies that allow young women to further their own educational attainment during pregnancy and childrearing.

I like this two-pronged approach because it targets prevention efforts where they will be most effective while still having the potential to weaken the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Even though Trisha wasn’t dissuaded from early pregnancy by her mother and grandmother’s poverty, maybe her child might delay childbearing if Trisha herself were able to finish an associate’s degree.

But I left out part of Trisha’s story: She doesn’t have a child because she miscarried at thirteen. No one can make me believe that her pregnancy didn’t cost her much just because it didn’t affect her educational attainment or her earnings (the things Diaz and Feil measure and base their policy recommendations on). The emotional and health consequences of early pregnancy are sufficient reasons to keep including disadvantaged youth in efforts to delay pregnancies.