While plenty of research confirms that living in poverty increases the chances of teen pregnancy, new information suggests that when low-income teenagers live in places with high income inequality the risk of pregnancy is even higher.
Keeping all other variables such as income and access to contraception equal, low-income teenage girls are more likely to become pregnant out-of-wedlock when they live in states with a higher than average unequal distribution of income, according to a study recently published by the National Economic Research Bureau. Mississippi, for example, has a four times higher teen pregnancy rate than Maryland, the study cited. Researchers determined that pregnancy among low-income teens is about 5 percent higher in states with the greatest wealth distribution gaps as compared to states with the least inequality. No such geographic variation was seen in women with high socioeconomic status (h/t Economix).
The trend holds true across countries as well. Even though teen pregnancy is on the decline, American girls are more likely to give birth as teenagers than their counterparts anywhere else in the industrialized world. According to a 2011 OECD report, the United States ranks first among developed countries when it comes to income inequality and fourth across the globe. Perhaps as a result, American teens are 10 times more likely to get pregnant than their counterparts in Switzerland, a country with a significantly narrower wealth gap.
The study’s authors, economists Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine, suggest that income inequality affects the way low-income girls perceive their future economic opportunities, citing that these girls "choose nonmarital motherhood at a young age instead of investing in their own economic progress because they feel they have little chance of advancement."
The new findings come amid increased debate over abstinence-only programs -- which the study's authors refer to as "silver bullets" incapable of solving the teen pregnancy problem in the United States. Just last month, Wisconsin passed a measure mandating abstinence-only sex education in schools. And last year, Texas Governor Rick Perry defended abstinence-only programs even as his state has the third highest level of teen pregnancy in the country.
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