Some years ago I wrote two reports for the New Mexico Department of Health about the economic costs of teenage pregnancy in the state. (Here’s a link to the second report from 2006.)
A recent article in the Atlantic online magazine makes the excellent point that the biggest cause for teenage pregnancy and childbirth is the one least likely to be mitigated by the common responses to teen pregnancy. Rather than issue teenagers with condoms, or make them attend abstinence programs, the solution lies in the lack of alternatives many teenagers have, or think they have, to bearing a child. Data from New Mexico shows that about 56% of teenage women who gave birth intended to have the baby, another 34% wanted a baby but would have preferred to wait until they were older. Why would teenage girls choose to have babies, given what we know, and they can easily find out, about the negative outcomes that follow? Why is having a baby as a teenager a better alternative than continuing at high school, or going on to complete a college degree, or even getting a job and waiting to have a baby later in life?
New Mexico continues to hold the rank of having the second highest teenage birthrate in the country (2010 data.) The birthrate has fallen, (from 65 per 1000 in 2000 to 53 per 1000 in 2010,) but it continues to be highest in the poorer states. When young girls have mothers, and sometimes fathers, who are struggling in poverty, and see more of the same around them, and see little in their futures other than the same fate, having a baby now may not seem such bad decision. The opportunity cost is not high, and for many, having a baby opens up doors to assistance and support they were not receiving before.
Girls who live in poverty, and who engage in risky behaviors are more likely to get pregnant and give birth as teenagers. There are many reasons that have little to do with economics, but economics can provide some understanding, especially when it comes to finding solutions. Should we spend more money on abstinence programs, or more on programs that expose girls to alternatives, and a path to breaking the vicious circle they find themselves locked in?