I f you spend enough time around someone who teaches kids for a living, you’ll hear them joke about their job being the best form of birth control available. As someone who used to work in that field, I used to think that those kinds of observations were a commentary on teacher salaries, and how impractical it would be to raise kids on them.
In time, though, I came to realize that they were more a criticism of students. The two-and-a-half kids and white picket fence we’ve always dreamt of are an excellent idea, in theory, until we wake up to the realization that unlike the ones in our dreams, the kids that we interact with in real life routinely greet us with obscene gestures and moist, wadded projectiles, while treating us to the kind of capricious behavior only a Django-inspired Leonardo DiCaprio could upstage.
Not all kids fit this description. But considering the sheer abundance of those that do, a draft–similar in spirit to the selection of Hunger Games tributes–would make for an interesting thought experiment.
In such an experiment, a portion of a country’s childbearing population would be required to work hands-on with kids for a predetermined period of time. Upon completion of service, both parties would either emerge better off, having gained perspective from and appreciation of one another, or one side would have successfully taken out the other–also not unlike what happens in the Hunger Games.
Regrettably–because who wouldn’t want to be on hand for a classroom deathmatch between a tribe of fourth graders and their homeroom teacher–no such policy exists; and with good reason.
At best, the efficacy of this kind of experiment would be middling. The silver bullet for problems of population control probably doesn’t rest in an educational volunteer corps program. Even if it did, what caliber of education can parents reliably expect their kids to receive from instructors that are in the classroom against their will? You’d basically be applying the concept of jury duty to education.
That being said, the issue of population control from the vantage point of pregnancy and birth rates– particularly among teens in the United States– is a vexing one. Despite being the world’s largest per-person spender on health care, the US still boasts teen birth rates in a league of their own relative to other, similarly-developed nations.
The narrative of factors that do shoulder some of the blame in this phenomenon varies depending on who you ask.
Why are teen birth rates in the United States so high?
For some, non-comprehensive sex ed is to blame, preaching abstinence as the only way for adolescents to avoid unintended pregnancies while generally ignoring the benefits associated with contraceptive use. This brand of education abounds in the States–in fifty shades of sex education– and is correlated with higher incidences of teen pregnancy.
Other research points to an adolescent’s starting place in life as highly predictive in determining the likelihood of their becoming pregnant prior to the age of 20. A teen that’s born into a large, low-income family whose parents already have or soon will split up has the deck stacked against them considerably more than would a different child born into opposing circumstances. Dim prospects of excelling in the classroom brought on by insufficient attention from teachers are equally damning for young adults.
Where the roots of adolescent pregnancy may appear ambiguous, the outcome and subsequent impacts are clear. Social and economic costs associated with unintended childbirth during adolescence are immense. They’ve been that way for a while now, and are shouldered–one could argue–more by the community in which the child is raised than by the child’s actual parents. All of this begs the question: How much does a teen’s baby cost?
Fully appreciating the answer to this question requires a bit of context. As of 2016, about 20 out of every 1000 female American teens were bringing new lives into the world. In a vacuum, that 2% rate isn’t terrible, especially considering what it was a mere two decades ago, and the rate at which the figure is hurtling toward single digits
These days though, with metrics being the ubiquitous little buggers that they are, it’s kind of tough to live in a vacuum– especially when you occupy a space among the world’s top 5% of developed nations. Curiosity gets the best of you and you start to sneak peeks at other comparative indicators.
What you find is that what the US accounts for in GDP per capita and select human development indicators relative to similar countries, it lacks in teen birth control. That 20/1000 teen pregnancy figure, for example, is roughly twice that of France and Canada, three times that of Germany, four times that of Norway and Sweden, and five times that of Denmark, the Netherlands, and Japan.
In America’s defense, this is at maximum only 15 more teens per 1000 than the other nations on this list; just another few babies here and there. When scale is taken into account though, that figure becomes an issue.
Developmentally similar nations like the ones listed above are absolutely dwarfed by the US in terms of population. The next closest country would be Japan with about 127 million citizens, and even that figure is deceptively high considering the extent to which Japan’s population has aged in recent years. This has resulted in a disproportionately smaller count of teens relative to older residents. The table below displays the approximate teen female (ages 15-19) population (in thousands) in all of the countries referenced above:
You don’t need William Parcher to extrapolate here. That seemingly minute gap in teen pregnancies stretches considerably when you take into account demographic disparities between countries.
Taking 2 percent (20/1000) of the roughly 10.4 million girls aged 15-19 living in the US as of 2016 leaves you with about 208,000. That’s 196,400 more than Japan’s 11,600; just under 200,000 more than Canada’s roughly 10,800; and– well, you get the idea.
So we have a rough idea of scale. There are litters of teens in the States getting pregnant. With that in mind, we return to our initial question: What are the costs associated with those 208,000 teen-birthed babies– How much for a baby?
A report published in 2006, which built upon findings from previous studies, while providing updated estimates and findings of its own sought to answer this question. Dividing costs between those attributable to moms, dads, and children, the general goal of the report’s study was to consider the following thought experiment: “If we could change a young woman’s age at the time she gives birth to her first child, but not change anything else about her, what impact would that have on her life, the life of her child, and the life of her partner?”
This question is tricky. You’ve got to be careful in linking outcomes solely to teen pregnancy for reasons touched on earlier. A lot of external factors come into play that also contribute to the consumption of public services, lower educational achievement, etc.
For example, if a girl drops out of school and is then unable to attain a certain level of education, it may have more to do with her growing up with a lack of resources than it does with her having a child early on. That’s not to say that getting pregnant wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back, but ignoring her background only leaves us with a limited picture.
In estimating costs as accurately as possible, considering these issues is critical.
Combining the impact of having your first kid as a teen (as opposed to at age 20 or 21) with the per-person cost of program services, we can reasonably ballpark the overall costs of teen childbearing for this generation (the teen mother and father) and the generation after that (the children of teen moms).
Let’s start with costs associated with children.
Healthcare costs for teen moms
A mom’s age when she has her first child isn’t a major factor in the grand scheme of that child’s health. It’s true that children of younger parents are more likely to have chronic health conditions than children of older parents, but younger parents are less likely to have their kids see a healthcare provider. Surprisingly, despite this, children of younger parents still account for a larger percentage of health care costs paid for by public services than do children of older parents.
When added up, a kid born to a teen mother consumes an average of $122 more in publicly-provided health care each year than the child of a woman who first gave birth at age 20 or 21, though this figure can reach upwards of $145 in some cases. This, in conjunction with costs from older teen parents, resulted in an estimated $1.92 billion tab for federal, state, and local taxpayers in 2004, which would have been about $2.43 billion in 2016 dollars.
Child welfare costs for teen moms
If your mom was 18 or 19 when she had you, there’s a 13 percent greater chance you spent some part of your childhood in foster care than did children of an older parent. Your mom was also 24 percent more likely to be reported for abuse or neglect than she would have been had she waited another year or so to have you. If she were even younger–say, 17 or thereabouts– you would’ve been more than twice as likely to end up in foster care within the first five years of your birth.
For those still grappling with the unfortunate series of events that culminated in Harry Potter’s de facto foster care childhood–because Lou Pickles would’ve been a more competent caretaker than the Dursleys–you’ve got fate to thank. Lily Potter was only 19 when she became pregnant with the Boy Who Lived.
These heightened risks accounted for an estimated increase in 2004 child welfare costs of somewhere in the region of $2.3 billion, though this figure can’t be presumed to be exact, as conversions from galleons to dollars has proven more difficult than expected, what with Brexit and that.
Child welfare expenses are perhaps further compounded by findings indicating linkages between time spent in foster care during one’s childhood and subsequent incarceration. Sons of teen moms are 2.2 times as likely to go to jail as sons of moms aged 20-21. This translates to them having spent over twice as much time in prison than children of older parents by the time they reach their late 30s. That, in turn, translates to $2.07 billion (2.62 in 2016 dollars) annually for incarceration, a figure, which is itself an extremely conservative estimate, as it’s not inclusive of federal-level incarcerations, and does not take into account female prisoners (the daughters of teen parents).
Education levels and earnings for teen moms
Being born to a teen parent doesn’t directly impact a child’s earning potential when they come of age. Instead, the impact of a younger parent is observed much more clearly via the years of education completed by the child.
Estimates from the costs of childbearing report show that about half of the difference in graduation rates is due to the difference in the timing of a first birth. When you adjust for other risk factors that might play into this, the children of young teen mothers complete about a quarter of a year less education. This translates to a reduction in average earnings of $810 per year, or roughly $35,000 over a 40+ year career.
In 2004, this meant a lost earning total equal to $4.9 billion, with a corresponding tax loss of about $2.3 billion each year given fertility rates. If we adjust for 2016 dollars, teen birth rates, and demographic shifts, however, this figure is more in the range of $6.25 billion in lost earnings and $2.9 billion in lost tax revenue.
Fortunately, impacts associated with older teen parents are comparatively small. A child is only 1% more likely to graduate if their parents wait until their early 20s to have them–all of which, using the same calculations from before, results in an annual tax loss of $630 million ($800 million in 2016). Still not small potatoes, but a lot less severe than effects associated with birth at 17 or younger.
Adolescent mothers from one generation to the next
The toughest bit of this is that it’s highly cyclical. If you’re a girl whose mom gave birth at 17 or younger, there’s a 33% percent chance that you’ll do the same. This, compared to only 11 percent of girls who went on to have a child in their early teens after their mom waited until her early 20s. Even after accounting for external factors, nearly one in five girls born to young teen moms will continue the trend. Contrarily, if a young woman’s mother delays her own first birth to age 20-21, her daughter’s risk of giving birth as a teen falls by almost 60 percent, from one-third to just 14 percent, as shown below.
It’s tough to fully calculate societal costs of the subsequent round of teen moms, though it’s not unlikely that they’ll experience many of the same effects as those listed above. The second generation teen mom is also likely to struggle financially, as a result of a lack of education, which may then add another financial dependent to the teen mom-turned-35-year-old-grandma’s balance sheet.
When you see impoverished countries that can’t seem to make progress developmentally, this is often one of the significant causes. Reproduction devoid of any real birth spacing planning can make it tough for a society to get out of its own way.
Consequences for parents
Public costs for parents are the difference in the taxes that they pay compared to older parents due to lower earnings. These lower earnings are often the result of lower educational attainment. For moms, the public costs are also the difference in the cost of public assistance they receive (TANF, Food Stamps, and housing assistance) compared to mothers who delay childbearing until age 20-21.
Only 40 percent of young teen mothers graduate from high school, compared to about three-quarters of women who delayed their first birth to age 20-21. Another 23 percent of young teen mothers earn a GED. Even so, when high school completion and a GED are combined, there is still a big gap (more than 20 percentage points) in completion rates. Add to this the fact that a GED is not considered equivalent to a High School diploma in terms of sheer market value, and you end up with a pretty significant gap indirectly generated by the differences in birthing ages.
More than half of the high school graduation gap and about one-third of the high school or GED gap can be attributed to the mother’s age at birth itself. By these estimates, a delay in a teen birth would increase the proportion of moms with a high school degree by 15 percentage points and the proportion with a traditional degree or a GED by 8.5 percentage points.
As it happens, that gap in diplomas matters a lot. Though the age at which moms have their first kids has zero direct impact on their wages or earnings potential, the level of education that they attain–especially at the high school level– ends up proving significant.
Hoffman’s study noted that on average, women from the ages of 18 to 35 who first had a child at age 17 or younger earn about $6,900 per year ($9,200 in today’s dollars), $3,350 less than the average of women who delay their first birth to age 20 or 21. When earnings are compared over the first 15 years of motherhood, the earnings deficit between early teen mothers and mothers who first give birth at age 20 or 21 is even larger – more than $84,000, or an average of $5,600 per year.
Curiously, you find that if you track the earnings of a mom who had her first child at 17 against one who waited until 21, the younger mom actually earns more money through the age of 35–roughly to the tune of $6,000. This is largely explained by the younger mom’s ability to enter the workforce sooner.
Presumably, she has her child and starts working soon thereafter, giving her a three-ish year head start on the other mom. If, however, you do an apples-to-apples comparison using the same time frame–say 15 years– for both moms, you find that the older mom actually earns an average of $28,000 more.
This disparity in earnings translates to a disparity in taxes collected, which is a cost that all of society has to account for. An unofficial estimate puts unpaid tax revenues as a result of early teen births in 2004 somewhere around $925 million ($1.2b in 2016) dollars. I say “unofficial” because we don’t know what’s playing into the earnings difference and have no way of really measuring it, making it hard to get a really clear idea of how much revenue the public sector forgoes each year as a result of teen pregnancies.
The final tally: How much does a baby cost teen parents?
So you’ve got a mom–presumably not-so-financially-well-off– not just because she wasn’t able to reach the academic heights that she may have aspired to, nor simply because she was born into rough financial circumstances, but because she’s, well, a mom. She now has another mouth to feed, body to clothe, and sack of flesh, bones, and organs to keep in relatively good working order. These things are expensive, prohibitively more so the younger you are. The more costs you’ve got, the tougher it becomes to make ends meet, and at some point or another, you find yourself in need of a helping hand.
From food stamps to housing aid, public assistance is designed to address resource and service shortcomings as they arise. These services, though, don’t come out of thin air. The costs associated with providing public goods have to be accounted for by someone, and under the auspices of various government organizations, that “someone” tends to be society at large in the form of levied taxes.
This–it should be made clear– isn’t a “look what you’ve done, it’s all your fault” polemic directed toward those having kids earlier than others; we’ve already established that pregnancy isn’t necessarily all their fault to begin with. Rather, it’s an attempt at presenting how the system at present works–as succinctly as possible–as well as an accounting of costs within that system.
With those things in mind, note that being an older teen (18 to 19) at first childbirth doesn’t bring with it an increased likelihood of consuming public goods. In fact, most consumption of public goods by that demographic is much better accounted for by other external factors, such as ethnic background or being the child of a parent that also received public assistance. The same can not be said for younger teen mothers.
In 2004, being a teen aged 17 or younger at the time of giving birth was attributable to about $3,700 in additional cash assistance and six months of additional Food Stamp receipt through the age of 35. Even after fully controlling for other risk factors, young teen mothers at the time were about 10-15 percent more likely to receive housing assistance. Over the first fifteen years of motherhood, this is equivalent to an average of about three additional months of assistance. The average family receiving housing assistance receives about $6,600 a year in benefits, with administrative costs adding another $646 (CBPP). Given the additional assistance and the per unit cost of providing housing assistance, teens giving birth at 17 or younger were piling on $220 million (280 in 2016) in housing costs annually. This adds up.
- Cash assistance through age 35 for one-third of teen moms: 520.5 million dollars.
- Housing assistance and administrative costs: 220 million dollars.
I feel like Billy Crudup cataloging a series of outing-specific expenses in a Mastercard commercial before arriving at the ‘priceless’ bit that makes it all worth it. But for the majority of teen moms, (apart from the intrinsic value that their child provides) that gratifying conclusion never comes; if anything, it just culminates in a looping of this process, which I guess, in a sad, ironic way is actually priceless, given the difficulty of calculating economic impacts of second-generation teen pregnancy.
I promised you an answer: How much for a baby? I won’t go into the specifics of the calculation process as the report’s appendices do a pretty good job of that. There are a couple of different ways to answer this question, though.
One would be in real money terms. The most recent estimate coming from the same foundation that sponsored the initial 2006 study noted that about $9.4 billion was spent as a result of teen childbearing in 2010. Not small potatoes. That figure is associated with 10,589,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 and a birth rate of 34/1000.
Since that time, the total number of girls in that age range has shrunk by roughly 500,000 and the birth rate now hovers around 20/1000. Crude though the estimate may be, if we used this information to extrapolate a present-day cost, we’d end up with something on the order of 201,000 teen pregnancies, which in comparison to the roughly 360,000 of 2010, would be associated with a cost of somewhere in the region of $7.5 billion in 2016 dollars. Keep in mind that in 2015, the US GDP was 17.95 trillion dollars, so this isn’t something that’s necessarily bankrupting the country. Still, though, it’s something that could largely be avoided.
The glass-half-full interpretation of teen birth costs leans on the sharp decline in the US teen birth rate from 1991 to present. The aforementioned report noted that from ‘91 to 2004 (58/1000 to 42/1000 births), taxpayers saved around $6.7 billion as a result of declining birth rates. We would again need to adjust for 2016 dollars, and take into account changes in tax rates over the past decade (information that I don’t have access to), but holding all other things constant, and acknowledging the accelerated rate at which teen pregnancies have continued to plummet, we could come up with a reasonably accurate estimate of cost savings over the past 10 years. That number would coincide with a drop from the 422,043 teen births in 2004 to a figure that is now less than half that.
422,000 teen births, which cost $9.1 billion in 2004, would be equivalent to $11.5 billion in 2016 dollars. Again, an extremely crude estimate, but in the strictly proportional sense of a calculation, 201,000 teen births would have cost something like $5.9 billion in 2004, or roughly $7.5 billion in 2016 terms–a $4 billion relief over a decade.
That the US lags severely behind other developmentally-similar nations with respect to teen pregnancy incidence is a matter beyond debate. What’s also indisputable, however, is that the States have done a much better job–in real terms and proportionally–of curbing this phenomenon over the past two decades than any of their high-income OECD counterparts.
Costs tied to the teen pregnancy rate in the States are certainly nothing to sniff at; it’s money that could very well be spent elsewhere while diminishing or entirely eliminating other social problems that are tied to the issue. Given the progress being made on erasing the gap between other nations on this front, though, there is reason for optimism. Time will tell if the US is able to keep up the torrid rate at which they’ve eradicated teen births in recent history. Who knows–perhaps someone will volunteer as tribute and overhaul the entire family planning process as we know it.