Teenage Pregnancy And Later Outcomes
Becoming a mother as a teenager is associated with higher risk for a number of poor outcomes. Teen mothers are less likely to finish high school, less successful in the job market, less likely to marry, and more likely to rely on public assistance than women who have children after their teen years. In addition, children of teen mothers generally do not fare as well as other children. They tend to score less optimally on assessments of cognitive development and academic achievement, and also tend to exhibit more problem behaviors than other children.
Although teen pregnancy is associated with this myriad of unfavorable outcomes, it has become widely acknowledged that such outcomes should not simply be interpreted as being caused by early childbearing itself. This is because teen births do not occur randomly among women in the population, but rather are experienced by women who themselves are much more likely to have come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Teenage mothers are up to twice as likely as other women, for example, to have grown up in single-parent families. Many teen mothers have spent much of their own childhood in poverty, often living in impoverished neighborhoods characterized by poor schools, inferior public services, and limited career options. Since people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are generally at higher risk for poorer outcomes, it is very difficult to sort out whether the long-term difficulties experienced by teen mothers and their children are due to early childbearing, or are the result of the mothers' preexisting economic and social disadvantages.
During the 1990s, researchers used innovative methods to try to better understand the actual consequences of teen childbearing. Arline Geronimus and her colleagues studied pairs of sisters in their late twenties and thirties in which one of the pair had a birth while a teenager and the other did not. Since both sisters were raised in the same conditions, this strategy provided a way to control for many aspects of background disadvantage when examining ways that outcomes differed for the teen and nonteen mothers. Using data from several nationally representative surveys, they found that the long-term "costs" of teen childbearing were lower than previously thought. Results based on one of the surveys indicated that future incomes and employment status were not significantly different among teen and older mothers. Similar analyses done by Geronimus and others (and replicated by Saul Hoffman and associates using data from another survey) did show somewhat lower incomes and poorer economic status among teen mothers when compared to their sisters who were not teen mothers. Although findings varied in different surveys, all of these studies consistently demonstrated that previous research, which did not account for background disadvantage, tended to overstate the negative consequences of teen child-bearing.
More recently, Joseph Hotz and colleagues compared mothers who gave birth as teenagers, with women who became pregnant at the same age but suffered miscarriages and subsequently delayed child-bearing for at least three or four years. Their results indicated that, on average, those who gave birth actually had significantly higher incomes later on than women who had delayed childbearing. In this study there was no difference among the groups of mothers in the likelihood of obtaining a high-school level education, although teen mothers were more likely to obtain a GED than a high school diploma. Teen mothers also tended to have more births by age thirty than the other mothers, and had spent a greater proportion of this time interval unmarried.
Studies have also examined the consequences of teen motherhood for children. For example, Kristin Moore and associates compared outcomes among children of teen and nonteen mothers, using a set of standard statistical controls in their analyses for maternal background factors and other characteristics. They found that children of teen mothers experienced a significantly lower quality home environment, and children born to teens aged seventeen or younger were at a significant disadvantage with respect to cognitive development and academic achievement. Using their sister-pair strategy as a more comprehensive way to control mothers' background disadvantage, Geronimus and colleagues found that children of teen mothers actually did better than children of nonteen mothers on several cognitive and achievement tests; and on other tests, no significant differences among the children were observed.
In sum, research findings highlight the important and previously underemphasized role that disadvantaged conditions prior to pregnancy play in the poor outcomes seen among teen mothers and their children. There is general consensus that earlier studies exaggerated the consequences of teen child-bearing because they failed to effectively take these background factors into account. The true nature and the extent of the outcomes caused by teen childbearing remain controversial, largely due to the fact that the data currently available with which to study them have significant limitations. More definitive answers will require the development of larger and more detailed surveys that follow childbearing women and their children over longer periods of time, as well as improved research methods for quantifying causal effects with increased certainty.
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