Do Teenage Mothers Have a Better Work Ethic?

If you asked me how being a single parent has affected my economic prospects I would have to say for the worse…and for the best.  You see, while parenting young children alone may have made everything more difficult (literally, everything) it also gave me an incentive to work hard to give those children what they needed.

In fact, I will let you in on a secret: The reason I have a Ph.D. in economics is because of my children – particularly my son who was born during final exams in my first term as a graduate student.

I suspect that this effect of mothers working hard to support their children explains, at least in part, why new research finds that women who become mothers in their teen years are no more economically disadvantaged than are otherwise similar women who did not.

Women who have children as teenagers often find themselves living in poverty. That much is true, but they aren’t poor because they had their children early – they probably had their children early because they are poor.

Women who have very little hope of continuing their education can expect to work for most of their lives in low skilled employment. Low skilled employment differs from skilled employment in one very important way – those jobs have very flat earning profiles over the lifetime of the worker.

Put another way, if you anticipate having a crappy minimum wage job for the rest of your life, taking time off to have a baby when you are young will not make your future paychecks any crappier.

Women who have a reasonable expectation of continuing their education after high school, on the other hand, can expect to work as skilled workers. For those women there is a double cost to teen pregnancy in that early motherhood makes it difficult to acquire new skills and because the wages paid to skilled employment are more sensitive to time out of the workforce.

If foregone future income is the cost of having a baby as a teenager – then the expected cost of not properly using contraceptives, for example, is much higher as women move up the socio-economic ladder.

So, if we pretend for one moment that teenage women are rational agents and that pregnancy, or no pregnancy, is the solution to a cost-benefit problem, then it is not surprising that poor women with little hope of post-secondary education become mothers at higher rates than do other women with better prospects.

It is still a little surprising that when you run an effectively controlled experiment looking at girls who became pregnant as teenagers and miscarried and compare their future incomes to girls who became pregnant and had their babies you see very little difference in their economic prospects.

This is why I think that girls must be compensating for the economic challenge of being a teen mother by working harder than their unencumbered sisters – they are stepping up to the plate for the sake of their children.

Interestingly, researchers are very happy to assume that married men earn more money than single men simply because they work harder to support their families. And yet when looking at the data on single parent females this type of thinking is entirely absent.

No wonder we have such a hard time understanding teen pregnancy when we are so mired in preconceptions about the women who dare to have children alone.

I know you are thinking that I am not your average single parent, and you would be right. The U.S. Census (2000) includes not one woman who gave birth as a single parent and completed a Ph.D. But I am certainly not the only woman working hard to give their fatherless children a better life – even after all that hard work performed by some of those women still living in poverty.

I know that measuring work effort is a challenge to researchers, but it would be nice to at least see it acknowledged when it comes to single female parents.

Many thanks to Jeroen Prinsen for sending me this article via this story in the The Economist and this story in Slate.


Schettini Kearney, Melissa and Phillip B. Levine (2012). “Why is the Teen Birth Rate In The United States so High and Why Does it Matter?” NBER Working Paper No. 17965.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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