Making the Best of a Bad Situation: Material Resources and Teenage Parenthood

By Mollborn, Stefanie | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2007 | Go to article overview

Making the Best of a Bad Situation: Material Resources and Teenage Parenthood


Mollborn, Stefanie, Journal of Marriage and Family


Past research has largely ignored the influence of material resources on teenage parents' life outcomes. A lack of resources such as housing, child care, and financial support is hypothesized to explain the negative effect of teenage parenthood on educational attainment. Regression analyses use nationally representative data from the 1988 - 2000 National Education Longitudinal Study (N = 8,432, n = 356 teenage parents). Results support the hypothesis completely for the teenage fathers in the sample and partially for mothers: Resources substantially diminish the educational penalty teenage parents paid by age 26. Gender influences which types of resources are protective, providing policy implications. Help with child care is critical for teenage mothers, whereas housing and financial resources may be important for men.

Key Words: adolescent parents, adolescent school achievement/failure. National Education Longitudinal Study, transition to parenthood.

Teenage parenthood has been a highly visible social problem in America for the past several decades (Furstenberg, 2003). Sixty-eight percentage of a recent sample of adults thought that teen pregnancy was "a major problem facing our country" (Race, Ethnicity and Medical Care Survey, 1999), despite falling rates of teenage pregnancy in recent years. Concerned citizens and researchers alike worry that adolescents who become parents are ruining their own and their children's future prospects. This study examines the long-term effects of teenage parenthood and the extent to which material resources can protect adolescent parents from worsened life outcomes. One of the primary areas in which teenage parents' futures may suffer is educational attainment. Over the years, a voluminous body of literature has been produced investigating the effect of becoming a teenage parent on educational outcomes. For young people today, a high school degree is a common prerequisite for postsecondary schooling and a minimum requirement for most attractive employment opportunities (Upchurch & McCarthy, 1990). Finishing a 2-or 4-year college or graduate degree brings even greater financial and noneconomic rewards (Kane & Rouse, 1995).

Most researchers have found that on average, teenage parenthood is associated with worsened educational outcomes (see Huffman, 1998, for a review), but this association has been debated because of concerns about two types of potential bias. Early research overestimated the size of the teenage parenthood effect because of selection bias: Unobserved heterogeneity of socioeconomic and other family and individual characteristics actually accounts for much of the apparent educational effect of teenage parenthood. Even when this bias was reduced using natural comparison groups to teenage mothers such as childless sisters (Geronimus & Korenman, 1992), childless twins (Grogger & Bronars, 1993), and pregnant teenagers who miscarried (Hotz, McElroy, & Sanders, 1997, 2005), though, most studies have still found a negative effect of becoming a teenage parent on educational outcomes.

Other research has found no negative effect of teenage parenthood on short-term educational measures such as dropout once endogeneity bias has been accounted for (Ribar, 1994; Upchurch & McCarthy, 1990). In other words, becoming a parent does not cause school dropout, but rather, preexisting socioeconomic and other factors cause both parenthood and dropout. The use of such short-term measures of school dropout may incorrectly overestimate the educational effect of parenthood because in the long term, many adolescent parents who dropped out do return to school at some point (Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Morgan, 1987; Rich & Kim, 1999). Most studies have found a negative effect of adolescent parenthood on educational attainment in the long term.

Discussions of both selection bias and endogeneity bias have focused on the socioeconomic resources that were available to teenagers and their families before they became parents. …

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