But Kearney and Levine suggest something different -- that teenage girls growing up in poverty don't see a downside to pregnancy.
This may sound surprising -- it's a contrast to the familiar assumption that teenagers accidentally get pregnant, drop out of school, and become financially distressed.
Instead, Kearney argues that teenage girls who are getting pregnant already have low economic prospects, and this lowers the opportunity cost of having a baby.
Their analysis takes a look at correlations between teen mothers and poverty rates, and sets them against ethnographic and sociological research about causation. “We know [from correlations] that girls who give birth as teens, go on to have higher rates of poverty, welfare use, lower rates of labor force attachment and lower wages. Children of teen moms are more likely to drop out of high school, live in poverty,” said Kearney.
But if the teen mothers had waited until their twenties to have children, would their economic prospects have been any better? The data argue no, according to Kearney.
Kearney and Levine's data results corroborate the following scenarios:
1. “You have a middle class girl, who’s playing her sports in high school, doing her homework, looking forward to going to college. Those girls tend to avoid pregnancy because they have other things they’re looking forward to doing and they know having a kid will set them back."
2. "[You have a young, poor woman] giving birth when they’re unmarried because they view their lives as out of control. They don’t view much opportunity for themselves, and they don’t view their partners as bringing much to the table.”
So what does that mean? This implies that the girls most likely to get pregnant are already living in the social conditions that lead to conditions of poverty.
But aren't most teen pregnancies unintended?
Kearney acknowledges that her argument could be controversial, especially in the advocacy community, because she talks about CHOICES that girls are making, even though data show that the majority of teen pregnancies are reportedly “unintended.”
However, she says this is misleading. “You look at the girls who had a baby and reported it was unintended -- many of them were not using any form of contraception. They weren’t actively trying to have a baby, but they weren’t actively not trying to have a baby... If a girl is ambivalent about getting pregnant, then giving her a sex-ed class, won’t solve the problem,” she said.
Kearney says this information should radically change how the U.S. addresses the issue of teen pregnancy. “Expanding contraception access, sex-ed curriculums, abstinence curriculum.... I’m not saying we should throw those programs away, but they are going to have a very small impact...because it doesn’t address the underlying social problems,” she said.
Instead, she argues that teen pregnancy prevention programs should address the bigger issues of education and life-trajectory. "We need to change the outlook and expand the opportunities available to economically disadvantaged girls and their partners. They need to be on a path out of poverty, on a path to complete school, to go to college to have those aspirations,” said Kearney. She says that holistic programs that really try and alter a young girl's reality, while more expensive, are the most successful in preventing teen pregnancy.