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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