Monday, May 14, 2012


Steven Landsburg links to a JEP piece on teenage pregnancy in America. The authors contend that teen pregnancy is a result of relative poverty and that the long-term implications aren't particularly worse than if the pregnancy had never occurred. They find higher levels of sexual activity and lower contraception use in poor or rural areas.

 I wonder about fertility, precaution, BATNA and regret here. Contraception is widely available, cheap and easy to use. Children are much more expensive than oral contraceptives or condoms, yet not only do teenage girls get pregnant at relatively high rates in the US, but the ones who do so appear to be those with the fewest financial resources to handle the responsibility.

There seems to be no shortage of hostility towards the idea of a 15 year old girl getting knocked up. Children don't understand the import, the gravitas of a lapse in judgement that leads to a fetus. People on the right see it as a moral failure, a decline in traditional family values. Folks on the left see it as inadequate attention to women's health issues or over-reliance on ineffectual  abstinence-only education. The authors of the paper, in their concluding remarks, see it as a call to reducing barriers to economic mobility and providing poverty relief. For my part, I want to know the answer to two questions: 1) is teenage childbearing non-euvoluntary and 2) if so, which condition is violated? This seems to be one of those curious situations where it's kind of hard to identify who is exploiting whom and for what purpose. I tend to scoff at explanations that cast teenage mothers as welfare queens, intentionally mooching off the state (I've done a little work looking at the aftermath of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and once you control for a few other effects, there's not really that much of a response) nor do I find convincing the claims of a Republican War on Women.

To question #1, it seems like the answer should lean towards non-euvoluntary, though policy tends to be much less directly intrusive than in the case of, oh, ticket scalping or payday lending. In the West, there are still remnants of social opprobrium towards out-of-wedlock pregnancy among teenagers (though this varies by region), but it's not clear that this should necessarily be taken as evidence of an EE violation.

To question #2, regret obviously isn't the answer. Only in rare circumstances do mothers ever regret having children. They may claim that they wish they had waited, but the endowment effect is amazingly strong: once you point out that their actual child would have never existed, regret vanishes like lizard spit on a hacienda roof. So what's left then? Coercion? Sure, pregnancies from rape or incest are non-voluntary, but that's a red herring. it's a  different subject with a different analysis. What about coercion by circumstance? I think this is where most of the discussion rests. Indeed, this is the explicit claim in the paper: girls see little in the way of decent future alternatives, so they exercise the option value of reproducing, trading paltry future earnings for the immediate pleasure of raising a child. Wealthy children with bright opportunities might make random mistakes from time to time, but only those with unattractive options make systematic errors.

Interesting then cross-country comparisons. Does this imply that the relatively low teen birth rates in Europe mean that Continental girls see better future employment opportunities than Americans? That doesn't seem plausible. Maybe additional controls are needed, maybe a difference-in-differences approach.

Hm. Has anyone looked at teen pregnancy rates in Greece and Germany 2007-2012?

At any rate, questions for discussion:

  • If teen pregnancy is indeed non-euvoluntary, does that imply that the outcome is bad?
  • Is there a role for voluntary coercion in contraception compliance?
  • Does the social status of the mother matter when evaluating the euvoluntarity of the pregnancy?
  • What responsibility does the state have in teen pregnancy intervention?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?