Home State Wide Teen moms from wealthier backgrounds may face greater ‘opportunity costs’ than low-income teen moms, study finds 

Teen moms from wealthier backgrounds may face greater ‘opportunity costs’ than low-income teen moms, study finds 


It’s well known that Mississippi teens give birth at one of the highest rates in the nation. But how does this affect the lives of adolescent mothers? 

A recent study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham looked at how, statistically, teen motherhood may not be a universally negative life event. Rather, teenage mothers from more privileged backgrounds face a greater “opportunity cost,” which is the loss of potential economic gain, compared to their less-advantages peers.

That’s due to a simple fact about what it means to have and to lose access to higher education, a good-paying job and quality healthcare. Teen mothers from higher-socioeconomic backgrounds have more opportunities and therefore more to lose, the study says. It also goes to show that teen mothers from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds face greater barriers to getting an education than just childbirth, said Joseph Wolfe, a sociology professor who worked on the study that analyzed longitudinal data spanning thousands of women across the 20th century.

“One of the many things associated with not having lots of opportunities” is teen birth, Wolfe said. “It can’t affect the opportunity cost if there are no opportunities.”

Wolfe added that childbirth, on its own, likely didn’t prevent a low-income teen mother from graduating college if she was never going to be able to afford tuition. 

Therefore, policies that solely aim to reduce teen birth, such as sex education, may not be as effective in increasing educational attainment for these mothers as ones that reduce the cost of college, combat generational poverty or increase the availability of childcare or well-paying jobs in economically deprived areas of the state, Wolfe said. 

“We no longer have the kind of society where the village is going to come in and help you raise your kid,” Wolfe said. “We really do need to have social structures that are … available freely for anyone who wants to use it.” 

In fact, Wolfe added, an approach to solving teen birth that only focuses on sex education may be more likely to benefit women from wealthier backgrounds for whom teen childbirth is one of the only barriers they face on their path to college.

“Those are the individuals that would actually have the resources to implement what a sex education would ask them to implement,” Wolfe said.

This is especially true when a college degree remains the door to good-paying jobs, the study noted. 

At the same time, teens across Mississippi face a dearth of accurate information and available resources to help prevent teen pregnancy, said Hope Crenshaw, the executive director of Teen Health Mississippi.

“We don’t dictate or we don’t narrate how much information people get if they are living with cancer,” Crenshaw said. “We give them all the information. We tell them about dietary options, we tell them about medicine, we tell them about support groups. When it comes to this (teen pregnancy), why are we regulating information?” 

Crenshaw works with teens across the state, and she said they have a range of perspectives on what it would mean for them to have a child as a teenager and the “opportunity cost” it might pose for them. Some are excited about the idea; for others, it wasn’t a choice, or the person they thought would help raise their child decided not to commit. 

“They don’t necessarily see it as, ‘if I have a child, I can’t do these things,’” Crenshaw said. “They’re trying to balance them both and that can be difficult.” 

This is especially the case for teen parents who are not white and from a lower socioeconomic background, Crenshaw added. Due to implicit bias, they are less likely to be taken seriously by adults in the medical system. They are more likely to live in a healthcare desert or to struggle to find childcare. 

Even so, Wolfe noted that teenage mothers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may also be more likely to have a family network that can help them raise their child. 

“The implications of having a child are way different for different families,” he said. 

As society has become even more stratified, that has become even more true, according to the study, which looked at longitudinal data on women across generations from 1922 to 1984. 

“The world opened up for some women,” Wolfe said. “It should have opened up for everybody.”

In the post-World War II baby boom era, teen births were “common and unremarkable.” It was permissible for schools to expel pregnant students. A teen birth was almost twice as likely for women as earning a college degree. 

“In the 50s and 60s, who cares if you have a teen birth because your husband is going to be your bridge to (a higher) social class,” Wolfe said. 

After the social movements of the mid-20th century, that began to change, the study found. The U.S. became more economically stratified, a country of “diverging destinies.” The Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive, and teen births dropped for those who could access it. 

By the 1990s, teen births were “an indicator of social class,” Wolfe said. 

A number of policies exacerbated this. In the information economy, a college degree became more salient, but the cost of tuition began to rise as states pulled back funding for higher education. And welfare reform resulted in some states withholding previously available child care benefits from teen mothers.  

Still, opportunities for adolescent mothers have grown across the board. The study found that millennial teen mothers were more likely to have a college degree than women from the silent generation, those who became teenagers in 1950, who did not have a teen birth.

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