Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97), we examine the relationship between teenage childbearing and four measures of adult civic engagement: charitable giving, volunteerism, political awareness, and voting. After accounting for selection on observables via propensity score matching and selection on unobservables via family fixed effects and instrumental variables approaches, we find that teen motherhood is negatively related to adult civic engagement. Descriptive evidence suggests that teen birth-induced reductions in educational attainment and the time-intensive nature of childcare are important mechanisms. Finally, we find that while the adverse civic engagement effects of teen parenthood may extend to teen fathers, the effects are much smaller in magnitude.
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The private socioeconomic and health-related consequences of teenage parenthood have been widely studied by both economists and sociologists (Geronimus and Korenman 1992, 1993; Hoffman et al. 1993; Bennett et al.1995; Levine and Painter 2003; Ribar 1999, 1994; Rindfuss et al. 1980; Klepinger et al. 1995, 1999; Marini 1984; Olsen and Farkas 1989; Hotz et al. 2005; Fletcher and Wolfe 2009; Ashcraft and Lang 2006; Hoffman 1998; Webbink et al. 2008; Fletcher 2011; Covington et al. 2013).
These organizations often serve the poor via food banks, homeless shelters, family or legal services, or financial aid, but also provide services for the larger non-poor community through booster clubs, Parent–Teacher Organizations, and youth sports groups (Giving USA 2012).
Sizable social benefits of charitable giving have been used to justify tax expenditures of approximately 50 billion dollars (Joint Committee on Taxation 2011).
The absence of compulsory voting laws is one explanation for relatively U.S. voter turnout (Pew Research 2016).
However, the adverse wage earnings effects of teenage childbearing may also decrease the opportunity cost of time, which could lead to an increase in time-intensive forms of civic engagement such as volunteerism.
Redistributive policies may also impact the bargaining power of couples, which could affect political participation (Cohen and Glazer 2015).
On p. 48 of Pacheco and Plutzer (2008), the authors mention, but do not present, auxiliary regressions of the relationship between having a teen miscarriage (vs. not getting pregnant) and voting behavior using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent and Adult Health. They interpret the absence of a significant relationship as evidence against selection bias.
We also experimented with generating a measure of dollars of charitable contributions in the last year, conditional on Charity equal to 1, but found that much of the effect was on the extensive margin of behavior.
Table 8 shows these mean differences for the sister’s sample, showing a generally similar pattern as in the full sample.
Estimating probit models produces marginal effects that are comparable to those reported in the tables below.
The approach will also not generalize to those siblings who are more dissimilar in age than our sample allows or for those with only opposite-gender siblings.
For example, if non-teen parent siblings assume some of the child care responsibilities for their sisters, then sibling comparisons could bias estimated effects toward zero.
Respondents were asked, In the past 12 months, how often have you attended a worship service (like church or synagogue service or mass)?
Respondents were asked, What percentage of kids [in your grade/in your grade when you were last in school] [go/went] to church or religious services on a regular basis? and What percentage of kids [in your grade /in your grade when you were last in school] [do/did] volunteer work?
There are 165 girls in our sample who report an age of first birth below 16, 59% of those are at age 15, another 29% at age 14, and the other 12% at age 13 or less.
For this sample, the mean proportion of adult women who gave to charity was 0.246; for volunteerism 0.280, for political awareness 0.465, and for voting 0.395.
These F-statistics shown in Table 4 were obtained using the sample for the political awareness regression. When we use the sample for the charitable giving regression, the F-statistics range from 167.0 to 184.0; for the volunteerism regression sample from 166.0 to 184.2; and for the voting regression from 148.3 to 167.1.
We also experimented with state fertility and abortion policies as instruments, but none passed the Staiger and Stock (1997) weak instrument test.
Measurement error in miscarriages may also be a concern.
Respondents are asked the following questionnaire items about smoking, binge drinking, and marijuana use, which we match to the timing of teen pregnancy:
During the past 30 days, on how many days did you smoke a cigarette?
During the last 30 days, on how many days did you have one or more drinks of an alcoholic beverage?
On how many days have you used marijuana in the last 30 days?
We code alcohol consumption equal to 1 if any drinks were reported and 0 otherwise; cigarette consumption is set equal to 1 if the participant smoked any number of days and 0 otherwise. Marijuana use was set equal to 1 if the responded answered yes to having used any amount of marijuana and 0 otherwise.
We also experimented with controls for prenatal care and the results were qualitatively similar.
We emphasize that this mediating analysis is descriptive in nature, and could have multiple interpretations. For instance, the observable controls may also capture individual heterogeneity related to teen childbearing (or miscarriages in the case of the IV analysis).
Only using the OLS approach—which does the least to address selection—do we find some evidence of a mediating effect of educational attainment. We find that controlling for educational attainment reduces the absolute magnitude of the OLS estimated association between teen childbearing and adult civic engagement by up to 73%.
Specifically, these include a set of dichotomous indicators for whether the respondent’s age of youngest child is ages 5 or under, between ages 6 and 10, and over age 10. For the OLS and FE samples, there is also an indicator for whether the respondent did not have a child.
An alternate interpretation of this finding could be that there is stronger negative selection on education for teenage men than for teenage women.
We pooled the samples of males and females and interacted a gender dummy with Teen Birth (conditional on interactions of the gender dummy with each of the controls) to test for gender differences in the civic engagement effects of teen parenthood.
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The authors thank participants at the 2013 Southern Economic Association and Population Association of America meetings for useful comments and suggestions. We thank Rebecca Sen Choudhury for excellent research assistance. The work was supported, in part, by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P01HD045610), the Cornell Institute for the Social Sciences and the Cornell Population Program. Dr. Sabia also acknowledges support from a grant received from the Charles Koch Foundation.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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Sabia, J.J., Price, J.P., Peters, H.E. et al. The effect on teenage childbearing on social capital development: new evidence on civic engagement. Rev Econ Household 16, 629–659 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11150-017-9371-3
- Teenage childbearing
- Social capital
- Civic engagement
- Charitable giving