Q&A: Putting Teens on Better Life Paths May Keep Them From Having Children Too Soon

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Photograph of Phillip Levine.

In March, economists Phillip Levine of Wellesley College and Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland released a compelling brief exploring the reasons the U.S. teen birth rate has been falling (PDF, 451KB) for two decades. They largely attribute the decline to worldwide trends, such as improvements in women’s access to education and better contraception. National trends such as high unemployment and a popular MTV reality show, “16 and Pregnant,” also played a role, they say.

We talked to Levine about the brief (released by The Brookings Institution) and what it will take to reduce U.S. teen birth rates even further.

NCFY: Teen birth rates have been falling for years. That’s obviously good news. Why is it important to figure out why rates have fallen?

Levine: One of the most dramatic facts about teen pregnancy and teen child bearing is how high those rates are even after the decline. We’re at rates of teen childbearing that are considerably higher than any other developed country. So it certainly makes sense to use whatever tools we have in our arsenal to try to figure out what’s going on so that we might be able to promote further reductions. And one of those things we have is our historical experience. What can we learn from what’s been happening over the past 20 years or so that’s led to what has been a remarkable decline, so that we can use it to keep the ball rolling?

NCFY: Some researchers are studying individual teens and what affects their behavior and in turn affects their likelihood or unlikelihood of having a teen birth. But you’re looking, as you said, at historical trends. How can both kinds of research inform each other?

Levine: For the most part they’re saying similar sorts of things about the underlying causes of the high rates of teen childbearing in the United States. From the ethnographic studies, you get a real sense of desperation and hopelessness, where it seems like there’s a large component of population that just think it doesn’t really matter whether they get pregnant or not. They’re not looking forward to great outcomes anyways.

From our perspective, that’s completely consistent with the fact that public policy has a difficult time altering teen birth. If women are in a situation that they’re going to do what they’re going to do because their aspirations have been sufficiently diminished, it’s going to be really hard to move them off of that by providing different forms of sex education, better access to contraceptives, or things like that. Those policies may have some effect but they can be pretty limited.

It’s difficult to find any evidence of teen child bearing and its effect on subsequent outcomes for women. So it’s not the act of teen childbearing itself that leads to greater high-school dropout rates or a range of things like that. We do observe those things in women who give birth at a young age, but they were on a trajectory towards those outcomes anyway, and having a baby at a young age was just one of the steps on that path.

NCFY: In “Teen Births Are Falling: What’s Going On?” (PDF, 451KB) you recommend a holistic approach to teen pregnancy, viewing it as just one part of a bigger issue of poverty and, maybe, disaffection.

Levine: That’s exactly right, that’s exactly what we think. I think a lot of times when we think about teen child bearing we think about what can we do at the moment that a teen is about to make a decision that would lead to birth at a young age or having sex without protection. I would argue that there may be some value to that kind of approach, but I think that it probably is of limited value. It’s what leads you to the position where you make that sort of decision in the first place. Those are the things that need to change.

If you’re going down a life path where you have high expectations and high aspirations for the sorts of things you’re going to achieve down the road, you’re going to make those kinds of decisions anyway—to use contraception or not to engage in sexual activity.

But if you’re in a position where you think to yourself, “What difference does it make?”—it’s going to be very hard to move that person off of that kind of behavior.

So in terms of public policy, the kinds of things that we need to think about are not what’s going to happen at that particular moment and stopping that thing from happening, but finding ways to put people on better life paths so that when they get to that point they make better decisions on their own.

Read our look at Levine and Kearney’s research on the MTV show “16 and Pregnant.”

Check out FYSB’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month website, which includes information about the bureau’s holistic approach to preventing teen pregnancy and childbearing.

Share FYSB’s infographic, “Keeping Up the Momentum: Together We Can Keep Teen Birth Rates Falling” (PDF, 365KB).

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