Mothers of Invention

By Geronimus, Arline T. | The Nation, August 12, 1996 | Go to article overview

Mothers of Invention


Geronimus, Arline T., The Nation


It's standing room only for those waiting to denounce teen childbearing. In Idaho a high school junior making A's and B's is hauled off the schoolyard by police and convicted of fornication after she applies for pregnancy-related medical aid. Congressional welfare reformers vote to deny assistance to unwed mothers under 21 and their children (potentially ruling out benefits for almost half of African-American first-time moms). At every turn, liberals vie with conservatives in condemning teen childbearing as the source of social ills. And they would have us believe that irrefutable scientific evidence points to enormous social costs of childbearing by teenage mothers.

The most recently reported source of such "evidence" is a report from the Robin Hood Foundation. The spin it received resonates with political fashion, but the claim of unconflicting scientific findings to support its high social cost estimates is inaccurate. The question policy-makers and social scientists need to answer is whether social problems would be alleviated if the women who become teen mothers postponed childbearing. This is difficult to investigate scientifically. The same women cannot have their first births twice, nor can we do a true controlled experiment. Instead, analysts must try to approximate an experimental approach by comparing teen mothers with older mothers who otherwise resemble them in every possible respect. But we know that those who will become teen mothers differ from the larger population in countless and consequential ways. For example, teen mothers are far more likely to have grown up in extremely impoverished circumstances and to have experienced failure in school. To assess the effects on social problems of teen motherhood per se, we must consider whether an already disadvantaged group is further disadvantaged by early motherhood, or any conclusions we draw are apt to be misleadingly dire.

The Robin Hood Foundation commissioned a number of studies of the social problems hypothesized to be caused by teenage childbearing. The methodologically strongest study explores the effect of teen childbearing on long-term economic outcomes, including recourse to welfare. In it University of Chicago economist Joe Hotz compares teen mothers with teens who miscarried and then went on to have their first birth when they were older. Since the second group would have become teen mothers if not for the accident of miscarriage, they can be thought of as comparable to the teen mothers in important ways. The authors conclude that over their adult lives, teen mothers are no more likely to participate in welfare programs or to suffer seriously reduced earnings than if they had postponed childbearing. Despite its exceptionally strong research design, the Hotz study is barely mentioned in press accounts, and there is no attempt to wrestle with its challenge to the conventional wisdom. Allowing beliefs to prejudge and override science, the report editor expresses only disappointment over Hotz's findings, while touting the more politically attractive ones of weaker studies in the collection.

Many authors in the Robin Hood group admit their difficulties in isolating the effects of teen childbearing. They urge caution in accepting their social cost estimates. For example, the study on the effects of teen childbearing on medical costs--one of the big-ticket items contributing to the report's fantastic figures--makes no claim to control adequately for any background factors except race. The authors conclude that if teen and older mothers differ on other important attributes--and they most certainly do--then "our results are likely to overstate the savings to society from postponing the childbearing of current teenage mothers." Despite these frankly admitted limitations, the editors' conclusions on the high cost of teenage childbearing were publicized without qualification.

Something else is strange about the Robin Hood report.

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