Tag Archives: fertility

Weathering and delayed births, get your norms off my body edition

You can skip down to the new data and analysis — or go straight to my new working paper — if you don’t need the preamble diatribe.

I have complained recently about the edict from above that poor (implying Black) women should delay their births until they are “financially ready” — especially in light of the evidence on their odds of marriage during the childbearing years. And then we saw what seemed like a friendly suggestion that poor women use more birth control lead to some nut on Fox News telling Rebecca Vallas, who spoke up for raising the minimum wage:

A family of three is not supposed to be living on the minimum wage. If you’re making minimum wage you shouldn’t be having children and trying to raise a family on it.

As if minimum wage is just a phase poor people can expect to pass through only briefly, on their way to middle class stability — provided they don’t piss it away by having children they can’t “afford.” This was a wonderful illustration of the point Arline Geronimus makes in this excellent (paywalled) paper from 2003, aptly titled, “Damned if you do: culture, identity, privilege, and teenage childbearing in the United States.” Geronimus has been pointing out for several decades that Black women face increased health risks and other problems when they delay their childbearing, even as White women have the best health outcomes when they delay theirs. This has been termed “the weathering hypothesis.” In that 2003 paper, she explores the cultural dynamic of dominance and subordination that this debate over birth timing entails. Here’s a free passage (where dominant is White and marginal is Black):

In sum, a danger of social inequality is that dominant groups will be motivated to promote their own cultural goals, at least in part, by holding aspects of the behavior of specific marginal groups in public contempt. This is especially true when this behavior is viewed as antithetical or threatening to social control messages aimed at the youth in the dominant group. An acknowledgment that teen childbearing might have benefits for some groups undermines social control messages intended to convince dominant group youth to postpone childbearing by extolling the absolute hazards of early fertility. Moreover, to acknowledge cultural variability in the costs and consequences of early childbearing requires public admission of structural inequality and the benefits members of dominant groups derive from socially excluding others. One cannot explain why the benefits of early childbearing may outweigh the costs for many African Americans without noting that African American youth do not enjoy the same access to advanced education or career security enjoyed by most Americans; that their parents are compelled to be more focused on imperatives of survival and subsistence than on encouraging their children to engage in extended and expensive preparation for the competitive labor market; indeed, that African Americans cannot even take their health or longevity for granted through middle age (Geronimus, 1994; Geronimus et al., 2001). And one cannot explain why these social and health inequalities exist without recognizing that structural barriers to full participation in American society impede the success of marginalized groups (Dressler, 1995; Geronimus, 2000; James, 1994). To acknowledge these circumstances would be to contradict the broader societal ethic that denies the existence of social inequality and is conflicted about cultural diversity. And it would undermine the ability the dominant group currently enjoys to interpret their privilege as earned, the just reward for their exercise of personal responsibility.

But the failure to acknowledge these circumstances results in a disastrous misunderstanding. As a society, we have become caught in an endless loop that rationalizes, perhaps guarantees, the continued marginalization of urban African Americans. In the case at hand, by misunderstanding the motivation, context, and outcomes of early childbearing among African Americans, and by implementing social welfare and public health policies that follow from this misunderstanding, the dominant European American culture reinforces material hardship for and stigmatization of African Americans. Faced with these hardships, early fertility timing will continue to be adaptive practice for African Americans. And, reliably, these fertility and related family “behaviors” will again be unfairly derided as antisocial. And so on.

Whoever said demography isn’t theoretical and political?

A simple illustration

In Geronimus’s classic weathering work, she documented disparities in healthy life expectancy, which is the expectation of healthy, or disability-free, years of life ahead. When a poor 18-year-old Black woman considers whether or not to have a child, she might take into account her expectation of healthy life expectancy — how long can she count on remaining healthy and active? — as well as, and this is crucial, that of her 40-year-old mother, who is expected to help out with the child-rearing (they’re poor, remember). Here’s a simple illustration: the percentage of Black and White mothers (women living in their own households, with their own children) who have a work-limiting disability, by age and education:


Not too many disabilities at age 20, but race and class kick in hard over these parenting years, till by their 50s one-in-five Black mothers with high school education or less has a disability, compared with one-in-twenty White mothers who’ve gone on to more education. That looming health trajectory is enough — Geronimus reasonably argues — to affect women’s decisions on whether or not to have a child (or go through with an accidental pregnancy). But for the group (say, Whites who aren’t that poor) who have a reasonable chance of getting higher education, and making it through their intensive parenting years disability-free, the economic consequence of an early birth weighs much more heavily.

Some new analysis

As I was thinking about all this the other day, I went to check on the latest infant mortality statistics, since that’s where Geronimus started this thread — with the observation that White women’s chance of a baby dying decline with age, while Black women’s don’t. And I noticed there is a new Period Linked Birth-Infant Death Data File for 2013. This is a giant database of all the births — with information from their birth certificates — linked to all the infant deaths from the same year. These records have been used for analyzing infant mortality dozens of times, including in pursuit of the weathering hypothesis, but I didn’t see any new analyses of the 2013 files, except the basic report the National Center for Health Statistics put out. The outcome is now a working paper at the Maryland Population Research Center.

The gist of the result is, to me, kind of shocking. Once you control for some basic health, birth, and socioeconomic conditions (plurality, parity, prenatal care, education, health insurance type, and smoking during pregnancy), the risk of infant mortality for Black mothers increases linearly with age: the longer they wait, the greater the risk. For White women the risk follows the familiar (and culturally lionized) U-shape, with the lowest risk in the early 30s. Mexican women (the largest Hispanic group I could include) are somewhere in between, with a sharp rise in risk at older ages, but no real advantage to waiting from 18 to 30.

I’ll show you (and these rates will differ a little from official rates for various technical reasons). First, the unadjusted infant mortality rates by maternal age:

Infant Death Rates, by Maternal Age: White, Black, and Mexican Mothers, U.S., 2013. Infant death rates per 1,000 live births for non-Hispanic white (N = 1,925,847), non-Hispanic black (N = 533,341), and Mexican origin (N = 501,390) mothers. Data source: 2013 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Public Use File, Centers for Disease Control.

Infant Death Rates, by Maternal Age: White, Black, and Mexican Mothers, U.S., 2013. Infant death rates per 1,000 live births for non-Hispanic white (N = 1,925,847), non-Hispanic black (N = 533,341), and Mexican origin (N = 501,390) mothers. Data source: 2013 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Public Use File, Centers for Disease Control.

These raw rates show the big health benefit to delay for White women, a smaller benefit for Mexican mothers, and no benefit for Black mothers. But when you control for those factors I mentioned, the infant mortality rates for young Black and Mexican mothers are lower — those are the mothers with low education and bad health care. Controlling for those things sort of simulates the decisions women face: given these things about me, what is the health effect of delay? (Of course, delaying could contribute to improving things, which is also part of the calculus.) Here are the adjusted age patterns:

Adjusted Probability of Infant Death, by Maternal Age: White, Black, and Mexican Mothers, U.S., 2013 Predicted probabilities of infant death generated by Stata margins command, adjusted for plurality, birth order, maternal education, prenatal care, payment source, and cigarette smoking during pregnancy; models estimated separately for white (A), black (B), and Mexican (C) mothers (see Tab. 1). Error bars are 95% confidence intervals. Data source: 2013 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Public Use File, Centers for Disease Control.

Adjusted Probability of Infant Death, by Maternal Age: White, Black, and Mexican Mothers, U.S., 2013. Predicted probabilities of infant death generated by Stata margins command, adjusted for plurality, birth order, maternal education, prenatal care, payment source, and cigarette smoking during pregnancy; models estimated separately for white (A), black (B), and Mexican (C) mothers (see Tab. 1). Error bars are 95% confidence intervals. (A separate test showed the linear trend for Black women is statistically significant.) Data source: 2013 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Public Use File, Centers for Disease Control.

My jaw kind of dropped. Infant mortality is mostly a measure of mothers’ health. Early childbearing looks a lot crazier for White women than for Black and Mexican women, and you can see why the messaging around delaying till your “ready” seems so out of tune to the less privileged (and that really means race more than class, in this case). Why wait? If women knew they had higher education, a good job, and decent health care awaiting them throughout their childbearing years, I think the decision tree would look a lot different.

Of course, I have often said that delayed marriage is good for women. And delayed childbearing would be — should be — too, as long as it doesn’t put the health of the mother and her children at risk (and squander the healthy rearing years of their grandparents).

Please check out the working paper for more background and references, and details about my analysis.


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Colorado leads drop in teen birth rate, 2008-2013

Yesterday I tweeted a figure of teen birth rate changes based on the fertility question in the American Community Survey. It showed Colorado with an above-average drop in teem births from 2008 to 2013, but not the biggest drop in the country. I have a better chart on this below.

The reason for the attention was this story in the New York Times, which reported:

Over the past six years, Colorado has conducted one of the largest experiments with long-acting birth control. If teenagers and poor women were offered free intrauterine devices and implants that prevent pregnancy for years, state officials asked, would those women choose them?

They did in a big way, and the results were startling. The birthrate among teenagers across the state plunged by 40 percent from 2009 to 2013, while their rate of abortions fell by 42 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Since the article didn’t provide data for comparisons, and I knew teen births were declining all over, I wanted to see if Colorado’s experiment was really such a standout. The figure was republished by German Lopez at Vox.com in a post on the Colorado program. Although the figure showed Colorado with a big drop, it still cast doubt on the program because it showed four states and DC with bigger drops.

I’m retracting that figure today, because I realized — and I should have known this — that we have teen birth rates by state and year from the vital records data reported by the National Center for Health Statistics. In these reports we can see that Colorado did, in fact, have the largest decline in teen births from 2008 and 2013 (their program started in 2009). Here’s the new figure:


The story isn’t that different between NCHS and ACS data, but Colorado is trying to raise money to continue the program, and it sure is nice for them to have this comparison. It’s great to have data right away — and share it — and it’s also great, even greater, to have better data. The vital records data is more complete and reliable, since it is not based on a sample, and teen births are rare enough now that sampling variation matters, even in a big sample like the ACS. So I regret that I published the earlier figure.

That said…

The teen birth rate is declining all over the country, even in places with terrible policies, so the Colorado program — valuable as it may be — is swimming with the tide.

The reason teen births are declining all over is because the teen birth rate is a myth — what’s really happening is women in the U.S. are having their children later, for economic and social reasons that go way beyond what’s happening with teens per se. I have written about this a few times:

See also:


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The total fertility rate, with instructions, in 9 minutes

Maybe because I haven’t had a classroom full of students since December, I made an instructional video.

In 9 minutes I explain what the total fertility rate is and then illustrate how to get the data you need to calculate it using IPUMS’s American Community Survey analysis tool. In the dramatic last five minutes we calculate the TFR for the United States in 2013, and match the official number. Wow. And you thought your holiday weekend was going to be fun already.

I want more people to have a hands-on feel for basic demography, and to realize how easy it is, and how accessible, with the tools we have nowadays. So, this is for students, non-demographic researchers, and journalists.

The video:

And here’s the end product (a little touched up):

tfr2013Check it out if you’re having trouble sleeping.


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More fathers married when their first child is born? Probably not

A startling data brief from the National Center for Health Statistics reports that the percentage of fathers who weren’t married at the time of their first births fell from the 1980s to the 2000s. Here is the first “key finding”: “The percentage of fathers aged 15–44 whose first births were nonmarital was lower in the 2000s (36%) than in the previous 2 decades.”

That is shocking. How could we have a falling percentage of fathers not married at the time of their first births? The author, Gladys Martinez, writes:

Results from this study indicate that in the 2000s, the percentage of fathers with nonmarital first births declined. However, the percentage of fathers whose nonmarital first births occurred within a cohabiting union increased. This pattern differs from that for the mother. Data for women showed that the share of all births that occurred to unmarried women has doubled between 1988 and 2009–2013, and that the increase was driven by an increase in the share of births to cohabiting women.

Here is the main figure, showing the decline in nonmarital first births for fathers:

nchs-men-1But I think this is not correct (this concern was first raised to me by Pew researcher Gretchen Livingston). Here’s why. As the figure shows, the source for these three decades of data is the National Survey of Family Growth. The earliest this survey captured men’s births (awkward phrase, but you know what I mean) was in 2002. And the ages included in the survey were 15-44. But the figure has information about births in the years 1980-1989. By my math, the oldest a 15-44-year-old in 2002 could have been in 1989 is 31. So that 2002 survey is only returning data on the marital status of men ages 15-31 in the 1980s.

I always have to do one of these to make sure I’m not crazy when I’m trying to work something like this out. This is how old 15-44 year-olds in 2002 were in the 1980s, excluding those under 15 (click to enlarge):


They’re all 15-31 (or younger) in the 1980s. In contrast, if they combine the 2006-2010 survey (collected over 5 years) with the 2011-2013 survey (collected over 3 years), they have men ages 15-42 in the 1990s and 15-44 in the 2000s. So, as the age of the men in the sample rose, the proportion married when they had their first birth rose, too. This is what we would expect: younger first-time parents are much less likely to be married.

Consider, then, the followup finding from the brief: for men of every age the proportion unmarried at the time of their first birth has increased:

nchs-men-2How can it be that the overall proportion unmarried is falling, while it’s rising for each age group? The answer in the data brief is that first-time unmarried fathers are getting older. But remember — the samples are getting older across these decades, because of the timing of the surveys: they age from 15-31 to 15-44. That explains the next figure perfectly. Look at that increase in the proportion of unmarried first-time fathers who are 25-44:

nchs-men-3In the 1980s, just 8% of first-time unmarried fathers were age 25-44, compared with a whopping 33% in the 2000s. But doesn’t it seem likely that you’ll have fewer men ages 25-44 in a group that only goes up to age 31, versus a group that goes all the way up to age 44?

This stuff gets confusing, but I’m pretty sure this is right. That is, wrong. I do not believe that there is a falling percentage of fathers having first births when they’re not married. What looked like a weird, complicated demographic problem — falling unmarried first-fatherhood along with rising unmarried first-motherhood — is probably an artifact of a weird, complicated problem in the analysis.

There is nothing in the data brief to suggest there was an adjustment for the changing age composition of the data for these decades, but maybe they did something I don’t understand. If not, I think NCHS should correct or retract this report.

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Updated age education birth figures

As fertility continues in the news (see last week’s post on rising birth rates for women with higher education), I am preparing for a planned appearance today on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, on the “grandparent deficit” associated with births at advanced parental age. So I updated some old figures I made in 2012.

These come from two posts:

  • Poverty Poses a Bigger Risk to Pregnancy Than Age, which argued that a focus on parental age was distracting us from economic inequality. I concluded: When it comes to parents’ age versus social class, the challenges are not either/or. We should be concerned about both. But addressing the health problems of parents—especially mothers—with less than a college degree and below-average incomes is the more pressing issue—both for potential lives saved or improved and for social equality.
  • Births to mothers in their forties are less common now than in the old days, which explained that, although first births at older ages are more common, the birth rate among older women is lower now than it was during the Baby Boom. That is, women aren’t more likely to have a kid at age 40 now — they’re just more likely to have their first at that age.

Here are three figures I’ve updated.

The first shows the distribution of births by education within each age group of mothers. It shows, for example, 85% of women under 20 who had a birth in 2013 had a high school education or less. The highest levels of education are found among women have babies in their late 30s (note these are not just first births):

work.xlsxThe next one shows the same information, but now arranged as percentages of all births. This shows, for example, that 27% of all births are to women in their late 20s, with the majority of those having some college education or less:

work.xlsxFinally, the odd phenomenon in which, although the percentage of all births to women age 40+ has increased to the point that it surpassed the Baby Boom years, the birth rate for women that age is still much lower than it was:

advanced age trends.xlsxSo the average 40-year-old was more likely to have a baby in 1960 than today (15.5 per 1000 versus 10.5 per 1000), but a baby born today is more likely to have a mother 40 or older (2.3% versus 2.8%). That’s because more people were having births at all ages in 1960. The U-shape here reflects two historical trends: first, the total number of children per woman declined, which meant fewer born at older ages because people stopped earlier. Then, as marriage age increased, along with women’s education, women started delaying their first births, which led to increasing birth rates — and proportions of births — at older ages.


The source for the first two figures is my analysis of 2013 ACS data from IPUMS.org. The last one is from National Center for Health Statistics reports: here, here, here, and here; as well as a couple of old Statistical Abstracts, here and here.

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Why are women with advanced degrees having more children?

There are a few puzzles in the latest news on U.S. fertility trends.


The issues behind fertility trends and patterns are complex, reflecting changing social and well as biological influences, and demanding careful attention to methods. Birth rates can be measured as annual events (such as the percentage of women having a birth in a given year) or as life-course outcomes (such as the percentage of women who reach age 45 without ever having a birth). Comparisons over time are confounded by changes in the composition of the population with regard to age, and some subgroups are subject to changing composition as a result of social or cultural, rather than biological, trends. For example, consider that a woman may spend the years from age 22 to age 43 as a college graduate, and then register an advanced degree at age 44. That means her births in the previous 20 years count among those with BAs, while her “completed fertility” would be counted among those with advanced degrees.

The news

It’s been a confusing few days for fertility-news watchers, so I’ll try to muddle it up a little more. I ran some numbers for a conversation I had with New York Times Upshot reporter Claire Cain Miller, which she reported under the title, “Births to Single Mothers Are Down, Except for Those 35 and Older.” I’ll show those here. They go along with the various headlines about Gretchen Livingston’s new Pew report, “Childlessness Falls, Family Size Grows Among Highly Educated Women,” reported by Brigid Schulte as, “Why educated women are having more babies.”

Here’s Miller’s chart, based on federal registered birth data. Note these are birth rates for women who aren’t married, which is not the same as the percentage of births occurring to women who aren’t married:


For unmarried women of all ages except 15-17, birth rates increased from 2002 to 2007. As I’ve shown before for women overall, the trend shows the increasing delay of childbearing, with a steeper rise for women ages 30-34 than for those in their early 20s. After 2007, however, reflecting the recession, birth rates fell for all unmarried women except those ages 35 and up. The conventional explanation for this has been that individuals and couples delayed births when they were financially squeezed, but those running up against the end of their fertile years couldn’t delay without risking infertility.

To see how this is working for single women in particular (and single here includes those who are cohabiting), it’s helpful to break it down by age and education. Older women face the biological clock issue regardless of their education level, and women with less education had greater exposure to recession-related hardship. What I showed Miller was this chart, which I made from American Community Survey (ACS) data provided by IPUMS.org. The solid lines are all unmarried women ages 15-44 — red for less than BA, blue for BA plus — while the dotted lines are just the older subgroup, 35-44. This shows that the volatility is greatest for women without BAs. And there is no real recession decline for the 35+ groups:

unmarried births ACS 01-13.xlsx

Based on that, Miller wrote:

During the recession, the decline in single motherhood was entirely attributable to women without college degrees, according to census data analyzed by Philip Cohen, a sociologist at University of Maryland who writes a blog called Family Inequality.

These are “women for whom the hardships of single motherhood are most acute,” Mr. Cohen said. “This could be deliberate planning, or it could reflect relationship problems or economic stress undermining their family plans.”

Among older women who are unmarried, ages 35 to 39, however, the birthrate was 48 percent higher in 2012 than in 2002, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The increase was driven by college-educated women, according to Mr. Cohen’s analysis. “The delay in general fits a long-term pattern: that family formation is increasingly delayed until women are more established, spend more time in education and more time developing their careers,” he said.

This is tricky because of course single women without BAs do have higher birth rates, so it’s not like poor women just can’t afford to have children — but as a group they were affected more by the crisis. What that means is that a greater proportion of them were affected in such a way as to reduce their fertility than among other groups.

Falling childfreeness

Although it seems contradictory on the surface, this is consistent with Livingston’s headline: Childlessness Falls, Family Size Grows Among Highly Educated Women. Although my figure only shows single women, look at the BA-holding 35+ women: their birth rates rose about 50% from the beginning of the decade till the recession, from about 10 per 1000 to about 15 per 1000, a rate they held through the recession.

But Livingston’s data are “completed” cohort fertility — estimated by the number of children women have had when they’re surveyed in the ages 40-44. Here’s her rather shocking chart:


My chart was annual birth rates. But hers is more interesting because it captures the life course more. What is it that is making women with advanced degrees have bigger families — and making fewer of them have no children at all?

There are several tricky things here, which I’ll show with data in a minute. They are:

  • The advanced-degree group has grown less select as it has grown — more women are entering this category. In particular, there are more Black and Hispanic women going beyond BAs, as well as presumably more women from poor backgrounds. So that might increase the birthrates of the group.
  • On the other hand, although marriage is more common among women with more education — and growing increasingly so — the proportion married among women going for advanced degrees has still fallen. Since married women have more children, this should lower fertility of higher-education women. (A quick check shows a slight decline in the proportion married among advanced degree holders under age 45 from 1990 to 2013, from 68% to 66%.)
  • Finally, as more women get BA degrees and go straight into additional schooling, the average age of women getting advanced degrees has fallen. That gives them more time to rack up births before hitting 44. (To make matters impossibly complicated, if they hold off on having children till they finish their advanced degrees, they will probably be younger when they graduate, as some graduate students with children might tell you.)

Remember that people make decisions about childbearing and education at the same time. If more women decide to get advanced degrees with the goal of having more children from a position of strength, then the statistics will show more women with advanced degrees having children — even if the decisions weren’t made in the order we assume.

It’s hard to get at this with the data we have. The population data we have on education and family characteristics doesn’t tell you when people got their degrees, which means those late 44-year-old medical school graduates are hard to pin down. Ideally, then, we’d have a measure of who is attending school, which would tell us who is on the way toward a degree. But the data from the Current Population Survey that Livingston used didn’t have measure of school attendance for people over age 25 until 2013. So I used the 1990 decennial Census and the 2013 ACS, which both have a measure of school attendance. Unfortunately, the 1990 Census doesn’t identify births, so I counted women as having had a birth if they were living in their own (or their husbands’) households with an “own child” age 0, which is not bad.

I took all the women ages 20-44 who already had a BA degree or higher, were attending school, and were living in their own (or their husbands’) households. In 1990 this was 3.4% of all women in that age group, and by 2013 it was 4.7% — a much bigger group. In 1990 3.5% of them had an infant, but that had increased to 4.6% by 2013. This is consistent with the Livingston finding that they are going to get advanced degrees and reach age 40-44 with more kids (if they experienced this birth rate difference every year, the completed fertility rates would be much higher for the later cohort).

Here are the breakdowns of the two cohorts according to the risk factors for childbearing I just described:

BAs attending school.xlsx

Notice: There are more in their prime childbearing ages (25-34), fewer married, and more Black and Hispanic. As it turns out, a regression analysis shows that the age change accounts for about a quarter of the increase in childbearing, while the change in marital status goes the other way about 8%, meaning they would have had even more kids if more were married. The race/ethnic effects are very small.

That also means the increase in fertility is not just compositional, the result of demographic changes. There is still an increasing tendency to have a child in this group, holding constant these factors. Adjusting for marital status and race/ethnicity, here are the predicted probabilities of having a birth in 1990 and 2013, by age:


Although the younger average age is a big factor, then, there is also a higher chance of having a birth at every age for college graduates pursuing advanced degrees. Why?


The optimistic interpretation of rising fertility for women with advanced degrees is that the cultural and organizational context has changed the childbearing calculus. The husbands or partners of these women are more supportive now. And their workplaces — or the workplaces they anticipate entering — have grown more accepting of professional women with children. Some schools have childcare and lactation spaces for graduate students. So having children may seem more reasonable. It’s also possible — and this is not contradictory — that the growth of this group has been driven by those who are less narrowly focused on their careers. To be a woman pursuing an advanced degree in 1990 you had to be a little more of a pioneer than you do now, so that path may have attracted a different group of women.

On the other hand, this is consistent with an inequality story: that those with better jobs and economic security, and family stability, have a growing advantage when it comes to raising children. Looking forward, I worry that the logistics of successful parenting are becoming an insurmountable challenge for too many people who don’t have enough control over their work lives. If we don’t improve the situation with healthcare, childcare, and family leave, then we risk increasingly making children a luxury that fewer families believe they can afford.

We are trying to fit our rapidly evolving social lives within the relatively narrow biological limits of human reproduction. The inconvenient truth is that the biological prime years for reproduction are also essential years for developing our human capital and adult relationships. We need collective efforts in the form of social policy to manage this compression.


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Marriage promotion and the myth of teen pregnancy

First some context, then some data.

Ruth Graham has a story in the Boston Globe about how liberals and conservatives — researchers as well as policy advocates — are starting to agree that marriage is good and policy should promote it. I’m quoted, but apparently as an example of what Andrew Cherlin refers to as someone standing at “a line some liberal sociologists won’t cross, that line of accepting marriage as the best arrangement.” This is part of a spate of stories in which journalists look for a new consensus on marriage. Previous entries include David Leonhardt in the New York Times saying liberals are wrong in attributing the decline of marriage to economics alone, and Brigid Schulte in the Washington Post reporting that Isabel Sawhill has given up on “trying to revive marriage.” The narrow consensus in policy terms involves a few things, like increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit and reducing marriage penalties in some parts of the safety net, along with trying to improve conditions at the low end of the labor market (see this Center for American Progress report for the liberal side of these policies).

From teen births to marriage promotion

The idea of a cultural revival of marriage has been the futile bleat of the family right for decades, most recently retooled by David Blankenhorn. And in recent years these ideologues have taken to using as an example the supposed success of the cultural intervention to reduce teen pregnancy, to show how we might increase marriage and reduce nonmarital birth rates. This has been a common refrain from Brad Wilcox, quoted here by Graham:

As evidence of his optimism, Wilcox points to teen pregnancy, which has dropped by more than 50 percent since the early 1990s. “Most people assumed you couldn’t do much around something related to sex and pregnancy and parenthood,” he said. “Then a consensus emerged across right and left, and that consensus was supported by public policy and social norms. … We were able to move the dial.”

I think that interpretation is not just wrong, it’s the opposite of right, as I’ll explain below.

I don’t know of any evidence that cultural intervention affected teen birth rates. Cultural intervention effects are different from cultural effects — of course cultural change is part of the trend in marriage and birth timing, but the commonly cited paper showing an apparent effect of 16 and Pregnant on teen births, for example, is not evidence that the campaign to reduce teen pregnancy was successful. There was a campaign to end teen pregnancy, and teen pregnancy declined. I think the trend might have happened for the same set of reasons the campaign happened — the same reasons for the decline in marriage and the shift toward later marriage. The campaign was one expression of shifting norms toward women’s independence, educational investment, and delayed family formation.

The myth of teen pregnancy

I’ve been trying to say this for a while, and it doesn’t seem to be taking. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m not giving up yet. So here goes again.

If you had never heard of teen pregnancy, you would see the decline in births among teenagers as what it is: part of the general historic trend toward later births and later marriage. I tried to show this in a previous post. I’ll repeat that, and then give you the new data.

First, I showed that teen birth trends simply follow the overall trend toward later births. Few births at young ages, more at older ages:

It doesn’t look like anything special happening with teens. To show that a different way, I juxtaposed teen birth rates with the tendency of older women (25-34) to have births relative to younger women (20-24). This showed that teen births are less common where older births are more common:

In other words, teen births follow general trends toward older births.

Today’s data exercise

Here’s a more rigorous (deeper dive!) into the same question. I show here that teenage women are less likely to have a birth if they live in place with higher age at marriage, and if they live in a place with lower marriage rates. That is, lower teen births go along with the main historical trend: delayed and declining marriage.

So if you think declining teen births are an example of how a policy for “cultural” intervention can reverse the historical tide, you’re not just wrong, you’re the opposite of right. The campaign to reduce teen births succeeded in doing what was happening already. This is not a model for marriage promotion.

Here’s what I did. I used the 2009-2011 American Community Survey, distributed by IPUMS.org. For 283 metropolitan areas, accounting for 73% of all U.S. 15-19 year-old women, I calculated the odds of a teenage woman reporting a birth in the previous year, as a function of: (a) the median age of women who married in that area in the previous year, and (b) the proportion of women ages 18-54 that are currently married in that area. I adjusted these odds for age, race/ethnicity, and nativity (foreign born). I didn’t adjust for things that are co-determined with births among teens, such as marital status, education, and living arrangements (in other words there is plenty of room to dive deeper). All effects were statistically significant when entered simultaneously in a logistic regression model, with robust standard errors for metro area clustering.*

The figures show probabilities of having a birth in the last year, adjusted for those factors, with 95% confidence intervals:



To summarize:

  • Teen births are a myth. There are just births to people ages 13 to 19.
  • Teen births have fallen as people increasingly delay childbearing and marriage. Falling teen births are simply part of the historical trend on marriage: rising age at marriage, declining marriage rates.
  • The campaign to prevent teen births coincided with the trends already underway. Any suggestion that this could be a model for promoting marriage — that is, a policy that goes against the historical tide on marriage — is hokum.
  • There remains no evidence at all to support any policy intervention to promote marriage.

* Well, the age at marriage effect is on significant at p=.054 (two-tailed), but my hypothesis is directional — and that cluster adjustment is brutal! Anyway, happy to share code and output, just email me. Here’s the regression table:



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