Tag Archives: fertility

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:

teenbirth-agemar

teenbirth-pctmar

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:

teenbirth-logit

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Fewer births and divorces, more violence: how the recession affected the American family

I wrote this for The Conversation. Read the original here.

Observers may be quick to declare social trends “good” or “bad” for families, but such conclusions are rarely justified. What’s good for one family – or group of families – may be bad for another. And within families, interests do not always align. Divorce is “bad” for a family in the sense of breaking it apart, but it may be beneficial, or even essential, for one or both partners or their children.

This kind of ambiguity makes it difficult to assess what kind of impact the recent recession and its aftermath had on families. But for researchers, at least, it offers a lot of job security – so many questions, so much going on. In any case, here’s where we stand so far.

The effect of the Great Recession on family trends in the United States has been dramatic with regard to birth rates and divorce, and has been strongly suggestive of family violence, but less clear for marriage and cohabitation.

Marriage rates declined, and cohabitation rates increased, but these trends were already underway, and the recession didn’t alter them much. When trends don’t change direction it’s difficult to identify an effect of a shock this broad. However, with both birth rates and divorce, clear patterns emerged.

Birth rates: a sharp drop
The most dramatic impact was on birth rates, which dropped precipitously, especially for young women, as a result of the economic crisis. How do we know? First, the timing of the fertility decline is very suggestive. After increasing steadily from the beginning of 2002 until late 2007, birth rates dropped sharply. (The decline has since slowed for some groups after 2010, but the US still saw record-low birth rates for teenagers and women ages 20-24 as late as 2012.)

Second, the decline in fertility was steeper in states with greater increases in unemployment. Although we don’t have the data to determine which couple did or did not have a child in response to economic changes, this pattern supports the idea that financial concerns convinced some people to not have a child.

That interpretation is supported by the third trend: the fertility drop was more pronounced among younger women – and there was no drop at all among women over 40. That may mean the fertility decline represents births postponed by families that intend to have children later – an option older women may not have – which fits previous research on economic shocks.

It seems likely that people who are on the fence about having a baby can be swayed by perceived financial hardship or uncertainty. From research on 27 European countries, we know that people with troubled family financial situations are more likely to say they are unsure whether they will meet their stated childbearing goals – that is, economic uncertainty doesn’t change their familial aims but may increase uncertainty in whether they will be met.

However, some births delayed inevitably become births foregone. Based on the effect of unemployment on birth rates in earlier periods, it appears a substantial number of young women who postponed births will end up never having children. By one estimate, women who were in their early 20s during the Great Recession are projected to have some 400,000 fewer lifetime births and an additional 1.5% of them will never have a birth.

Divorce rates: a counter-intuitive reaction
In the case of divorce, the pattern is counter-intuitive. Although economic hardship and insecurity adds stress to relationships and increases the risk of divorce, the overall divorce rate usually drops when unemployment rates rise.

Researchers believe that, like births, people postpone divorces during economic crises because of the costs of divorcing – not just legal fees, but also housing transitions (which were especially difficult in the Great Recession) and employment disruptions.

My own research found that there was a sharp drop in the divorce rate in 2009 that can reasonably be attributed to the recession. But, as we suspect will be the case with births, there appears to have been a divorce-rate rebound in the years that followed.
Domestic violence: a spike along with joblessness
Family violence has become much less common since the 1990s. The reasons are not entirely clear, but they certainly include the overall drop in violent crime, improved response from social service and non-governmental organizations, and improvements in women’s relative economic status. However, when the recession hit there was a spike in intimate-partner violence, coinciding with the sharp rise in men’s unemployment rates (I show the trends here).

As with the other trends, it’s hard to make a case based on timing alone, but the evidence is fairly strong that the economic shock increased family stress and violence. For example, one study showed that mothers were more likely to report spanking their children in the months when consumer confidence fell. Another study found a jump in abusive head trauma cases during the recession in several regions. And there have been many anecdotal and journalist accounts of increases in family violence, emerging as early as 2009. Are these direct results of the economic stress or mere correlation? It’s hard to say for sure.

The ultimate impact of these trends on American families will likely take years to emerge. The recession may have affected the pattern of marriage in ways we don’t yet understand – how couples selected each other, who got married and who didn’t – and may create measurable group of marriages that are marked for future effects as yet unforeseen. Like the young adults who entered the labor market during the period of high unemployment and whose career trajectories will be forever altered unfavorably, how these families bear the scars cannot be predicted. Time will tell.

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US teen birth rates remain high, and they’re not falling for the reasons you’ve heard

Everyone is excited by the decline in the teen birth rate in the US. But And here are a few things you should know about it.

This chart shows the birth rates for women ages 15 to 19 in 192 countries, plus the world and the UN-defined rich countries, for 1991 and 2011. Dots below the black line show countries where the teen birth rate fell. The red line shows the overall relationship between 1991 and 2011. Dots below the red line had greater than expected reduction in teen births.

teen births global

Source: My graph United Nations data.

The chart shows four things:

1. Teen birth rates are falling globally. From 1991 to 2011, the birth rate for women ages 15 to 19 fell from 65 to 46 births per 1,000 women worldwide.

2. US has higher teen birth rates than any other rich country. At 33 per 1,000, the US has more teen births than Pakistan (28), but fewer than India (36). For high income countries, by the UN definition, the rate is 19. The rate for the Euro area is 7.

3. The teen birth rate is falling faster in the US than in the world overall. The world rate fell 29% from 1991 to 2011, while the drop in the US was 44%.

In the US, there are a lot of factors related to falling teen births. But they’re mostly about how it’s happening, not why it’s happening. For example, Vox published a list of factors, as did Pew before them, that are reasonable: the recession, more birth control, more Medicaid money for family planning, cultural pressure, and less sex.

But to understand why this is happening, you have to stop thinking about teenagers as some sort of separate subspecies. They are just young women. Soon they will be in their 20s. The same women! So the short answer for why falling teen birth rates happening is this:

4. Teen birth rates in the US are falling because women are postponing their births generally.

You can see this if you line up teens next to women of other ages. Here are the changes in birth rates for women, by age, from 1989 to 2012.

birthratechangebyage

Source: My graph from National Center for Health Statistics data.

See how the trend for the last decade is parallel for 15-17, 18-19, and 20-24? As those rates fell, birth rates rose for the 30+ community. The younger women are, the fewer births they’re having; the older they are, the more births they’re having. Teenage women are women! They do it for all the reasons it’s happening around the world: some because they are delaying marriage, some to pursue education and careers, some to see the world, and so on.

Here is another way to look at this. Here are the 50 US states, from the 2000-2012 American Community Survey. This shows that states with lower teen birth rates (those are per 100, on the y-axis), have higher birth rates for 25-34 year-old women relative to 20-24 year-old women. I’ll explain:

teenbirthstates

Teen births rates and the ratio of birth rates ages 25-34 / 20-24. US states, 2010-2011

Where more women have children ages 25-34 relative to 20-24, there are fewer teen births. So, in Alabama, about 3% of women 15-19 had a baby per year, and in that state the birth rates are about the same for women 25-34 as 20-24. Alabama is an early-birth state. But in New Hampshire, only 1% of teens had a baby, and women 25-34 were almost 2.5-times more likely to have a baby than women 20-24. New Hampshire is a late-birth state. What’s happening with teens reflects what’s happening with older women.

To some significant degree, it’s not about teenagers, it’s about women delaying births.* I would love it if reporting on teen births would always compare them to older women.

*Notice I didn’t just exaggerate and say, “it’s not about teenagers.” I added “to some significant degree.” That’s the difference between a post that is selling you (your clicks) to someone versus a post that’s trying to explain things as clearly as possible.

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Fewer children, more employed women: International edition

In the discussion on this post about interpreting historical trends, several people pointed out that the relationship between fertility rates and women’s employment rates is not simple, and has changed, at least in the rich countries. I made some charts using international data about that, which I will show below.

But first a figure from this paper by Rense Nieuwenhuis and colleagues, which he linked from the comments. In that 2012 paper they show that the negative association between motherhood and employment weakened in OECD countries from 1975 to 1999. Still, at the individual level, in almost every country and every year, the odds of being employed are lower for mothers, as this figure shows (dots lower in each box indicate a bigger employment gap between mothers and non-mothers; click to enlarge):

oecd

It’s a very interesting paper I should have recommended earlier.

The fact that mothers are less likely to be employed than women without children doesn’t mean that countries — or time periods — with lower fertility rates necessarily have higher women’s employment rates (see Nieuwenhuis’s comment for a few other papers on this). So it’s good to look at individual as well as macro-level patterns.

Anyway, those are all rich countries. What about poorer countries? Because of the unbelievably good archive of census data (freely available, thank gov) at IPUMS International (74 countries, 238 censuses, 544 million records, and counting), it’s possible to ask questions like this.

Looking for censuses that recorded the number of children ever born to women, as well as their employment status, I sampled 10,000 households each from 89 censuses in 29 countries in Latin America or the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa, ranging in time period from 1960 to 2010. I limited the samples to women ages 25-44, and counted their children up to 7. The countries were:

  • Latin America / Caribbean: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay
  • Africa: Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa
  • Asia: China, Indonesia, Vietnam

Here’s what I found. Overall there is not a strong correlation at the country level between mean number of children born per women and employment rates (correlation = -.09):

wlfp1

Closer inspection reveals a pretty strong relationship in the Latin America / Caribbean samples, as well as the three Asian countries, but not the African samples. But this scatter doesn’t show the time trends. If I limit it to the 9 countries that have at least 4 censuses (8 from Latina America, plus Indonesia), they almost all show the pattern I started with: falling fertility and rising women’s employment rates. The arrows track each country’s censuses in chronological order, so moving up and to the left fits the historical pattern:

wlfp2The country-level association is not the same as an individual-level association, because it can’t confirm that women with more children themselves are the ones who aren’t employed. To gauge that I estimate a linear regression within each census, measuring the association between number of children ever born and employment, controlling only for age. These are the results from those 89 regressions. The x-axis is still the mean number of children in each sample, but now the y-axis is the statistical effect of each additional child on the probability of being employed: below 0 indicates that having had more children reduces the probability of employment.

wlfp3In 15 of the 89 samples, each additional child is associated with a greater chance the woman is employed, but in 74 samples the effect is negative*. Furthermore, it appears that countries with lower fertility rates have a stronger negative association between children and employment — each kid reduces the odds of employment more. Consider, though, that a reduction of .11 in the probability of employment for each kid has a lower total effect in a country with two children per mother than a reduction of .05 in a country where people have three kids each**.

If we go back to the 9 countries with at least 4 censuses each, we can compare the trends in fertility to the child effect on employment:

wlfp4Most of these countries (Chile, Colombia, Indonesia, Panama, and Mexico) show the pattern in which the child effect strengthened while the fertility rate fell. Uruguay and Argentina show falling child effects and little fertility change.

Two possible conclusions:

  1. Although it may seem prosaic, this reminds me that the long-run, modern movement of women into the paid labor force is closely associated with the decline in fertility (as well as, incidentally, the decline in marriage). I think of that as indicating that women’s labor is increasingly diffused outward from their own children through market (or otherwise socialized) mechanisms. As the prototype, think of a woman with 2 children teaching 30 children in school (while her own kids are in another classroom) instead of spending the day caring for 6 children at home (while growing food, etc.).
  2. The trend toward a smaller employment gap between mothers and non-mothers is a recent, selective, rich-country phenomenon associated with very low fertility rates and (as the Nieuwenhuis et al. paper nicely shows) state policies designed to encourage mothers’ labor force participation (and, they hope, increase fertility).

Footnotes:

* I didn’t bother with significance tests because these were arbitrarily small subsamples from each census; we could always go test them with the full samples.

** I could test a total motherhood effect, like Nieuwenhuis et al. did, but in almost all of these are samples 80% or 90% of women have children, so the kid/no-kid comparison is not as salient.

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Breaking through the Wilcoxian ceiling of nonmarital births

Finishing off right-wing family think-tank recognition week.

In the first post I pointed out the right-wing foundations gave their academic and think-tankian foot-soldiers more than $5 million over three years to prop up conservative family ideals. In the second post I ridiculed Brad Wilcox’s unsupported assertion that “the nation’s retreat from marriage may have bottomed out.” He based that on the fact that marriage rates did not fall in 2010 or 2011 after the very steep drop in 2009. (Thank G-d for small favors.)

Today is a quick one to point out the even worse distortion in the second half of Wilcox’s sunny-side post. He wrote:

In the wake of the Great Recession, nonmarital childbearing has accounted for 41 percent of all births from 2008 to the present. This is the first time in at least 40 years that the percentage of children being born outside of wedlock has remained stable for five years.

That kind of trend-line bottom feeding reminds me of the basketball announcer’s patter as the player steps to the free-throw line: “He’s only 71 percent from the line on the season, but he’s three-for-four so far tonight.”

Anyway, it’s worse than that because of the way demography works. To give away the conclusion: after 2008 births shifted dramatically to older women as younger women’s fertility rates fell. Older women have lower unmarried childbearing rates. So the overall unmarried-birth rate didn’t rise much even as the unmarried-birth rate in each age group continued to rise.

You gotta love demography. Here are the trends.

Note I’m using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data, which asks a giant national sample of women each year if they’ve had a baby in the past 12 months. If gives rates a little different from the trend Wilcox showed, which was based on vital registry data submitted by the states to the CDC. I use this because it’s easy to break births out by age and marital status for each year. (Unfortunately, the IPUMS data archive I use doesn’t have the 2012 file up yet, and the Census website was shut down by Wilcox’s friend Mike Lee and his GOP colleagues.)

Anyway. First, here are the percent of births to mothers who are not married, the total and by age group, shown as changes from 2006. Wilcox is talking about the relatively flat “total” trend from 2008 to 2012.

wilcox-blog-debunk-1

In these data the total trend is upward for whatever reason having to do with the data source, but it doesn’t matter because the point is the same. The amazing thing is that by 2011 the total increase is smaller than the increase for each age group! That is, from 2006 to 2011, the percentage of all births that were to unmarried women increased 2.6 percent, but the increase was steeper for each specific group — up to a 4.3 percent increase for women in their 20s. (Some “enduring appeal of marriage”!)

How is this possible? It happened because births shifted from younger to older women, as we’ve known since 2011. And older women are much more likely to be married when they have children. Here’s how big that difference is:

wilcox-blog-debunk-2Twenty-something women are almost twice as likely to be unmarried when they have babies as those in their 30s and 40s. And here’s how big the change was in who was having babies from 2008 forward:

wilcox-blog-debunk-3Wow! Women in their 40s had 80,000 more babies in 2011 than they did in 2006. Those in their 20s had 134,000 less. Remember the women in their 20s were also the ones who had the steepest increase in nonmarital births rates. That means that among this group it was married women who cut their birth rates — probably deliberately postponing births because they have a biological clock buffer and could afford to hold off till (they hoped) the economy picked up. Meanwhile, the older crowd, who are on a long march toward higher birth rates, couldn’t fit that delay into their plans, so their birth rates didn’t fall.

So, back to Wilcox to see how this new evidence fits his triumphal conclusion:

But the enduring appeal of marriage for most Americans may also be part of the story for both of the trends noted above. For the vast majority of Americans, marriage remains an integral part of the American Dream. … The enduring appeal of marriage may translate into a floor for the marriage rate, insofar as a substantial share of Americans remain committed to tying the knot [see the last post], and a ceiling for the nonmarital childbearing rate, insofar as a substantial share of Americans remain committed to having their children in wedlock.

Of course a “substantial share remain committed” to marriage. No one would suggest otherwise. But the ceiling/floor story is just a (pontifical) fantasy. If the percentage of women at every age having their births while not married has continued to increase — regardless of whether the overall percentage is pretty flat for a few years — then we have to conclude the story he tells is complete baloney.

(Follow my Brad Wilcox stories under the National Marriage Project tag even though he’s blogging for the Institute for Family Studies now. As long as IFS operates out of the same post office box as Brad’s shell foundation, I’m not giving them their own tag.)

ADDENDUM: I should have discussed more the differences between these data and the vital statistics. Elizabeth Gregory, author of Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood, sent the following chart using the NCHS data. This appears to confirm that, although the number of births are different, the trends by age after 2008 are very similar to what I reported from the ACS data.
20131004-085555.jpg

ADDITIONAL ADDENDUM: The ACS reports more births than NCHS, because ACS asks about the “previous 12 months,” which goes back to, for example, June for interviews in June, so that can be up to 13 months. Also, ACS respondents on average are interviewed 6 months after they gave birth, so they skew older than the NCHS data. I don’t know if these two differences account for the difference between my numbers from ACS and those sent by Elizabeth Gregory. But I think the point remains that the stall in non-marital births is probably an artifact of the shift to older-age births during the recession.

Sources:

ACS births 2011: Census version (not available during shutdown); Wayback Machine version.

Census Powerpoint report on differences with NCHS: Census version (not available during shutdown); Wayback Machine version.

 

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It’s not the one-child policy, repeated correction edition

The Washington Post has a poignant story about elderly parents in China whose lives are disrupted by the deaths of their only children. In a society with low fertility, an inadequate pension system, and a high cultural value on generational legacies, this loss is often devastating. And for those who wanted to have more children, but were prevented from doing so by China’s repressive one-child policy, the suffering is more acute, resulting in anger directed toward the state.

I wish, however, that American media would stop unquestioningly attributing China’s low fertility rate to the one-child policy. The Post‘s William Wan writes:

For more than three decades, debate has raged over China’s one-child policy, imposed in 1979 to rein in runaway population growth. It has reshaped Chinese society — with birthrates plunging from 4.77 children per woman in the early 1970s to 1.64 in 2011, according to estimates by the United Nations — and contributed to the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio at birth, with baby boys far outnumbering girls.

That’s an odd paragraph, because it notes the policy was implemented in 1979 (it was actually 1980), and then compares fertility rates in the “early 1970s” to the present. Isn’t the more reasonable comparison to 1980? The data are available:

Source: World Bank or United Nations.

The drop from 2.6 in 1980 to 1.6 or so today is important (although of course it can’t all be attributed to the policy). But the “plunge” from 4.77 was mostly before the policy took hold.

A recent paper by Wang Feng, Yong Cai, and Baochang Gu considers the common claim that the one-child policy averted 400 million births. They write:

In stating that the one-child policy averted 400 million births, the promoters of the policy first misinterpreted the original results from the study mentioned above. The number of births averted was for the period since 1970, not from 1980, when the one-child policy was formally implemented nationwide. This mistake is crucial because most of China’s fertility transition was completed during the decade of the 1970s—that is, before China’s one-child policy was enacted. Within that decade, China’s total fertility rate dropped by more than half, from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979. Most of the births averted, if any, were due to the rapid fertility decline of that decade, not to the one-child policy that came afterward.

Dear American news media: Please make a note of a it.

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The declining birthrate doesn’t spell disaster

I have an essay in Time online, to accompany their cover story on child free living (which I haven’t read yet).

20130801-080858.jpg

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