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National Research Council (US) Panel on Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing; Hofferth SL, Hayes CD, editors. Risking the Future: Adolescent Sexuality, Pregnancy, and Childbearing, Volume II: Working Papers and Statistical Appendices. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1987.

Cover of Risking the Future

Risking the Future: Adolescent Sexuality, Pregnancy, and Childbearing, Volume II: Working Papers and Statistical Appendices.

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Sandra L.Hofferth


The assumption of active parenting significantly changes a young woman's or man's life. As discussed in previous chapters, caring for an infant takes time and energy which is therefore not available for other activities. Although parents are never fully prepared, those who are married, with a regularly employed wage earner and a reasonably stable existence generally have the resources to cope adequately. The demands of parenthood must come as a shock to the unmarried teenager who is enrolled in school, who is dependent on her parents, and who knows very little about caring for children.

The first part of this chapter focuses on the long term consequences of early childbearing for the mother, the father, and other family members. The major objective is to compare some ten years after high school the economic situation of young women and men who bore (fathered) a child as a teen with that of others who delayed childbearing until their twenties. The questions that will be addressed are the following:


Are there effects of early childbearing on the later social and economic well-being of the mother, the father, and other family members net of initial differences between early and later childbearers?


If there are effects, how do they operate? That is, through what mechanisms or intervening factors do they operate?


Have these effects changed over time such that early childbearing has more (or less) serious consequences for recent birth cohorts of young women and men than for earlier birth cohorts of young women and men?

Research has shown substantial variation among early childbearers in economic well-being, and it is important to know why some do well and others don't. Thus an additional question will be addressed:


Among early childbearers themselves, what factors differentiate those who are doing well from those who are not doing well?

Part Two focuses on the consequences of early childbearing for society. Finally, Part Three focuses on the hypothetical impact of policy interventions.

The perspective used in this chapter is that of the life course, “the social patterns in the timing, duration, spacing and order of events” (Elder, 1978:21). One of the central features is the notion of “multiple interdependent pathways (career lines) from birth to death” (Elder, 1978:22). Such career lines occur in the marital, parental, and socioeconomic spheres. The relationship between the timing of events in these different spheres represents an important characteristic of individuals. There are also regular patterns across individuals. For example, a majority follow a common pattern regarding timing of school leaving, entry into employment, marriage and childbearing (see for example, Hogan, 1980). “With multiple career lines, the scheduling of events and obligations becomes a basic problem in the management of resources and pressures” (Elder, 1978:27).

Parenthood is an event that radically affects the life of the mother. The demands of a child simply cannot be ignored without risk. Thus the timing of parenthood relative to other career lines is a major concern. In this chapter we will consider schooling, marriage, and employment as other interdependent career lines and explore the interrelationships among events in these different domains. The ultimate test of the importance of timing and sequencing of events is the economic circumstances of the individual at some later point in life, in particular, own income, income of other family members, poverty status and welfare dependence.

Direct Versus Indirect and Total Effects

Just because research identifies no direct causal connection between two variables, for example, between the age at which a woman has her first birth and family income, for example, does not mean there is no association at all. For example, if an early first birth is associated with reduced schooling, which is, in turn, associated with lower earnings, and lower income, then an early first birth is indirectly associated with lower family income later on. The total of the direct impacts of age at first birth and its indirect impacts through other variables is called the total effect of age at first birth. The pathways through which a variable such as age at first birth affects variables later in life explain the impage of age at first birth. That is, they explain how it can affect later well-being without there being any direct causal connection.

Measurement of Early Childbearing

Most of the studies referred to in this chapter measure the age at which the young woman or man bore (fathered) a first child in single years of age. This is then associated in a statistical analysis with education, number of children or family income. The coefficients reported, therefore, show what difference there is in years of schooling, for example, between youth who differ by one year of age at first birth. The assumption of the model is that the effect of delaying a birth for one year is the same whether a young man or woman delays from 16 to 17, from age 20 to 21, or from age 26 to 27. This is a strong assumption, and one that may not necessarily be true. As an alternative, then, some of the models looked only at a subsample of teenagers. In this case, using the same age measure, the results indicate the difference that delaying a birth for one year during the teens years makes in the outcome measure. This may be more useful in policy terms, but it then does not compare teenage with older childbearers.

Another way to compare the effects of teen versus older childbearers would be to simply dichotomize at age 19, for example, and compare the socioeconomic status of those with a first birth at or before age 19 and those with a first birth after age 19. The choice of the cutoff point then becomes an issue, since it may greatly affect the results. None of the studies cited here dichotomized the age at first birth variable.

Given the fact that the models included here are linear models, in addition, the types of relationships between age at first birth and socioeconomic outcomes are severely constrained. The reader therefore is cautioned that the research reported here, while of very high quality, is limited in its sensitivity to complex relationships.


The first question is how, once they have reached their late twenties and early thirties, do women and men who had their first child before twenty and those who had it after age twenty compare on economic well-being? Which events and domains account for most of the relationship we find? Second, among early childbearers not all are doing poorly. What determines differential adaptation? Some potential explanatory factors include a) individual differences in background, aspirations, motivation and ability, b) resources: family socioeconomic status, informal support networks; c) formal programs of social intervention, and d) career contingencies: other events occurring around the time of the birth in other career lines—e.g., marriage, employment, schooling. Most of this research focuses on young women; relevant data for young men are presented where available.


The most general sequence of schooling, marriage and childbearing is that of completion of schooling, marriage, and then childbearing. In this section we will focus particularly on the timing/sequencing pattern in which childbearing precedes school completion. Because of the time and energy that raising children require, which interferes with the time and energy required to study and attend classes, women who bear a child during the school years often leave before they can complete their schooling. This is especially the case for those who bear a child during the high school years. Results from a number of studies show that young women who bear a child as teenagers are substantially less likely to complete high school than those who bear a child later on. All the studies reviewed show that early childbearers exhibit a substantial educational deficit relative to later childbearers.

However, studies have also found substantial preexisting differences between early and later childbearers, differences that may explain the difference in completed schooling. Card and Wise (1978) for example, found that young women who bear a child while in high school not only were of lower socioeconomic status when they were in ninth grade, but already had lower academic abilities and lower educational expectations than their classmates, factors which also predict poor school performance and poor later life chances. With the exception of one study (Rindfuss et al., 1980), every study that has been able to control for initial differences between early and later childbearers (Card and Wise, 1978; Haggstrom et al., 1981, 1983; Koo and Bilsborrow, 1979; Hofferth and Moore, 1979; Marini, 1984) has found an additional impact of having an early birth. Thus the bulk of the evidence is that there is an additional impact on school completion of having a child at an early age above and beyond the impact of the initial disadvantaged situation of those who tend to have births at an early age. The impact of an early birth has also been shown to be greatest during the high school years (Hofferth and Moore, 1979). This does not negate the fact that some young women do drop out of school physically or even mentally far before bearing their first child. There is evidence that a sizeable proportion (one-quarter to one-third) dropped out prior to a first pregnancy (Morrison, 1984). However, even among those with poor school records, those who have a first birth while in high school face even greater odds against completing their schooling than those who delay that first birth for several years.

Some attention has been given to the issue of whether the relationship between schooling and dropping out of school has changed over time. The Card and Wise study looked at the earliest birth cohorts— born in 1942–43 and 1945–46. The Hofferth and Moore study looked at birth cohorts 1944–54, while the Haggstrom et al. study looked at a cohort born in 1954, approximately. It is possible that some of the differences between the results are due to changes over time. Mott and Maxwell, for example, found that young women were more likely to stay in school following a first birth in 1979 than they were in the late 1960's. However, this does not reduce the disadvantage they suffer. McCarthy and Radish (1982) show that even though early childbearers complete more schooling than they used to, their childless peers are also completing more schooling. Thus they are not better off in relation to their peers. Since so much reliance is placed on schooling today, they may be even worse off. One study suggests that a small additional amount of schooling for these young women does not boost their earning power enough to keep them from needing public assistance (Moore and Wertheimer, 1982). How much schooling and what type is needed to make a significant difference in their economic well-being would appear to be valuable questions to answer.

There are several other issues here. First, what are the factors mediating whether an adolescent childbearer remains in school or not? One of these is the legal system. Until the mid 1970s, young pregnant women were often not permitted to remain in school. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which was implemented in 1975, prohibits discrimination because of pregnancy or parenting status in publicly supported educational programs. Schools make a variety of arrangements for the schooling of pregnant students, from keeping them in regular classes to providing separate programs (Zellman, 1982). Although these efforts vary in quality, they appear to have had a substantial impact on school completion (Mott and Maxwell, 1981). However, even so, caring for a young baby puts an enormous burden on a young women. What other factors have been shown to be associated with keeping a pregnant adolescent in school?

Family support has been shown to be important to whether or not an adolescent childbearer remains in school (Furstenberg and Crawford, 1978). Those who do not marry and who remain at home with their parents are more likely to complete high school than either those who do not marry but move way from home or those who marry.

Enrollment in special school programs may also affect school completion. In their 17 year follow-up of adolescent childbearers, Furstenberg and Brooks-Gunn (1985) found a strong association between staying in school and attending a special school for teen mothers. Since adolescents who had higher ambitions were much more likely to participate in the special program than to stay in the regular school, and more highly motivated adolescents did better later on regardless of the type of school, this may explain their differential school continuation. However, after controlling for its selective attraction to motivated adolescents, Furstenberg found that the association between attending the school and later well-being remained strong (Furstenberg and Brooks-Gunn, 1985). Those in the special school for pregnant girls did substantially better in later life than those attending a regular school program (and those who dropped out).

An important issue, one which has not received much research attention is that of identifying factors associated with whether or not a young woman who has had an early birth and has dropped out of school returns to complete her schooling. Research evidence suggests that at least during the first decade after a birth, early childbearers (who have dropped out) do not return to school at a higher rate than those also out of school but who have not had a first birth (Moore et al., 1978:29–30). Thus they are not likely to catch up. Research comparing early childbearers and delayers at a later point in the life cycle shows that although a substantial proportion of pregnant adolescents do drop out, a substantial proportion do eventually return to complete additional schooling or receive a GED (Furstenberg and Brooks-Gunn, 1985; Mott and Marsiglio, 1985). Unfortunately, the evidence shows that a year of school attendance is not associated with completing an additional year of education (Furstenberg and Brooks-Gunn, 1985). Thus, although early childbearers do return to school, it takes a lot longer for them to complete a year of schooling than it does for those who did not drop out. In addition a GED may not be as advantageous as a high school diploma. Given initial differences and the cumulation of disadvantage, it seems unlikely that early childbearers will return to school at higher enough rates after their children are grown than later childbearers to reduce their relative disadvantage. The data show a declining difference in educational attainment with age, but one which remains substantial and which does not disappear (Card and Wise, 1978). If, in fact, as has been suggested by other research (Card, 1981; Newcomer and Udry, 1984), their daughters bear children at early ages too, these mothers may continue to have childrearing duties for many more years.

Although most research has focused on females, there is reason to believe that fathering a child may also have consequences for males. Are men who father a child at an early age more likely to drop out of school? If so, do they eventually receive accreditation in the form of a GED? Is ever fathering a child associated with less schooling or are any effects limited to those who live with their children? Finally, are the differences due to substantial preexisting differences or to the early birth itself. Card and Wise (1978) showed that half of all women and seven out of ten men who had borne a child before age 18 completed high school by age 29, compared with almost all who delayed childbearing until their early twenties. The differences among early and late fathering, males are less striking than among early and later childbearers (female), but nonetheless are important.

A recent analysis (Marsiglio, 1986) based on the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, waves 1979–1983, also found, net of factors such as parental education, family structure, race, region and religion, that young men who reported fathering a child during their teen years had completed significantly fewer years of schooling by 1983 than those who did not report having fathered a child. This research, however, did not control for differential IQ and aspirations among fathers and nonfathers. Thus it cannot be concluded that this effect is due only to the birth of the child. The authors failed to find evidence that living with a child has more impact on a father than ever having fathered a child. However, given the high degree of instability of living arrangements of young parents, this may not be surprising. It would be helpful to have information on whether the father is, in fact, in touch with the mother of the child and whether the father contributes to the support of that child.


All the evidence supports the conclusion that early childbearers have more children, especially more unwanted children, and that they have them more rapidly than older childbearers (Trussell and Menhen, 1978; Furstenberg, 1976; Prosser, 1976; Moore and Hofferth, 1978; Koo and Suchindren, 1979; Bumpass et al., 1978). The issue of whether this relationship has changed over time is an important one. There is evidence that the difference between the earliest and later childbearers is declining with more recent birth cohorts as a result of greater fertility declines among teen mothers (Millman and Hendershot, 1980). If this result holds up it will be an important one, since the difference in family size is the largest and clearest difference between early and later childbearers, and, as we shall see in the following pages, has the most implications for later well-being.

How can the difference between early and later childbearers in family size be explained? One potential explanation is that early childbearers have a longer period of exposure to childbearing. However, the difference in family size by age at first birth holds even controlling for length of exposure (Trussell and Menken, 1978). A second possible explanation is that the youngest women are the least likely to have used contraception at first intercourse and least likely to use it consistently thereafter. This does appear to be supported by research evidence (Zelnik et al., 1981). A third possible, but untested, explanation is that young women who start their families early are familistic in orientation and want to have larger families. This could be the case for those who intended the first birth; however, this accounts for only a minority of teenage first births—23 percent according to Zelnik and Kantner (1978). A fourth possible explanation is that early childbearers are less able to take a future orientation and to plan. As a result they have more unwanted pregnancies across the life span (Cvetkovich, 1980). This hypothesis has not been tested.

It is clear that differential schooling also increases the gap between early and later childbearers in family size. Research has found evidence that young women with more schooling are better contraceptors, and, therefore, are better able to limit their family size. They also desire fewer children. Thus, the age at which a woman has a first birth indirectly affects family size through the schooling she obtains.

What factors differentiate early childbearers who have large and small families? When Furstenberg and Brooks-Gunn (1985) went back and reinterviewed their adolescent mothers after 17 years, they found, in contrast to what they expected, that only a relatively small proportion had gone on to have large families. Most had been able to control their fertility. The method that they used was sterilization; about half of these mothers had been sterilized for contraceptive purposes. Thus the fertility of these mothers was comparable to that of delayed childbearers in other surveys. Those young women who were able to control their fertility and, therefore, had the fewest children at the 17 year follow-up, were those who had been at grade for age, who had had high educational aspirations, who used birth control, who were enrolled in school, who delayed a second birth, and who were not married at the five year follow-up. Those who attended a special school and those who were in a special hospital program were more likely to use birth control and, as a result, likely to have a small family 17 years later.

Although early childbearers have larger families than later childbearers, hypotheses reasons for this association have not been tested. Recent research (Heckman et al., 1985) suggests that differences between early and later childbearers that existed prior to the first birth may explain the association. If so then what these differences are need further exploration.

Finally, no research in the consequences of early childbearing on family size have been conducted on males. Such analysis depends on reports of births, and males substantially under report such events. The quality of male data needs further study (see Marsiglio, 1986).

Marriage and Marital Dissolution

There is a very strong relationship between marital and parenthood careers. Although the most common sequencing pattern is for marriage to precede pregnancy and birth, premarital pregnancy, marriage and a postmarital birth has not been uncommon. A pattern of increasing importance is that of a birth followed by marriage. There is a strong relationship for whites between the age at which a woman has her first child and her age at first marriage; the relationship is weaker for blacks. Wertheimer and Moore (1982) showed that a birth to a woman aged 15 to 17 increased the probability that she would marry from .075 to .240 if she was white and from .056 to .110 if she was black. Recent data show that 96.5 percent of firstborn black babies to women 15 to 19 were conceived out-of-wedlock in 1980–81, compared with 64.4 percent of first born white babies to women 15 to 19, and 87.9 percent of black mothers and 36.8 percent of white mothers were still single at birth (O'Connell and Rogers, 1984). The proportion who have married within 2 years is also smaller for blacks and whites. Among those who eventually marry, whites marry much sooner than blacks. According to recent data, 53 percent of whites (who eventually marry) were married in 3 years, compared with 29 percent of blacks. Data also suggest that the longer the period of time between birth and marriage, the less likely the mother is to marry the father of the child (Furstenberg, 1976). Thus young women who have an early first birth are more likely to marry soon thereafter, although this relationship appears to have weakened over the past decade and to be especially weak for blacks.

The first question is what is the effect of an early birth on marital disruption, relative to that of an early marriage? There are several possible hypotheses as to the effect of the timing of marriage relative to a birth on disruption. First, the literature to date shows that an early marriage is consistently associated with divorce or separation (Glick and Norton, 1977; McCarthy and Menken, 1979; Weed, 1974; Bumpass and Sweet, 1972). The intervening mechanism may be the youthfulness of the partners, their lack of experience with other potential partners, and the extent to which they have yet to experience important adult transitions. In contrast, some research finds (Furstenburg, 1976; Card and Wise, 1978; Furstenburg and Brooks-Gunn, 1985; McCarthy and Menken, 1979) that an early birth increases divorce and separation for men and women. The mixed evidence may be due to a related phenomenon. During the early years of marriage, couples with a young child have a substantially lower probability of divorce relative to childless couples. The presence of a young child appears to depress divorce, at least during the early years of a marriage. It is hard to disentangle the influences of an early marriage and an early birth, since marriage and childbearing are tied so closely together, especially for whites. The relative influence of early marriage and early birth cannot be tested among whites, for example, because these factors are so highly associated. However, this hypothesis might better be tested among blacks since blacks have a much lower probability of marrying soon after a first pregnancy (and after a first birth) and are unlikely to marry before pregnancy (teenagers). That is, among black teens, a pregnancy is much less likely to precipitate an early marriage. In fact, it is only among blacks that an early first birth is associated with later marital disruption, net of early marriage (Moore and Waite, 1981). Thus it is still too early to rule out an additional impact of a premarital birth or of a short birth interval.

However, it is possible to tease out the differential impact of marriage timing among those who bear a first child as teenagers. Young women and men who marry soon after a pregnancy may be better off than those who wait until after the birth; however, they may be more likely to divorce than those who marry later, which may make them even less secure economically. Probably the most important question is what is the differential divorce proneness of marriages contracted before pregnancy, after pregnancy but before a birth, and after a first birth? Research shows that teenage mothers are less likely to experience a marital separation if they marry before the birth than if they marry after the birth; there is little difference in divorce probability between those who marry before versus after becoming pregnant (but before the birth) (McLaughlin et al., 1984). Differences in divorce probabilities by marriage timing are relatively short term for blacks, but have longer term effects for whites. The impact of marriage timing appears to be declining over time, as it had no impact on divorce/separation among recent birth cohorts of young women.

What are the potential explanations of the differential impact of marriage timing? First, young women and men who marry before the birth may be different from those who don't in ways that affect marital stability. In particular, they may be more committed to their partner, in more stable situations, and so on. The researchers controlled for a variety of background factors that could potentially also be associated with disruption (McLaughlin et al., 1984). Thus the possibility of other differences, while still present because of the limited nature of variables that are available, is minimized.

A second possible explanation is differential schooling. The amount of schooling the young woman had attained at marriage was not associated with the probability of separation, however (McLaughlin et al., 1984). One factor that was associated with a higher probability of separation was whether the first birth was unwanted or mistimed. An unwanted or mistimed first birth was associated with a higher probability of divorce or separation.

Furstenberg and Gunn (1985) found substantial marital instability among their adolescent childbearers. Almost all eventually married— 78 percent. However, about 2/3 of first marriages ended; by 17 years after the first birth only 26 percent of the sample were currently married in a first marriage. Two fifths were previously married, and 8 percent were currently married in a second or later marriage. The authors concluded that adolescent parenthood seriously damages a women's prospects for a stable marital union. What is not known is why this relationship holds—whether it is due to the child or to other factors that affect both marital instabilityn and early childbearing. Finally, very little is known about the characteristics (and prospects) of the men these early childbearers marry or could marry.


Labor Force Participation and Hours Worked

The research suggests that the age at which childbearing begins is not as important as the length of time since the (most recent) birth in influencing whether or not a woman works. Having a young child consistently lowers labor force participation, whereas an early birth does not. Of the three studies that have specifically addressed this issue, one (Koo and Bilsborrow, 1980) finds no effect of early childbearing while two studies find a weak positive effect of early childbearing on labor force participation (Hofferth et al., 1978; Card, 1979). In these studies early childbearers (female) appear to be somewhat more likely to be in the labor force 10 years after high school than later childbearers. This is probably due to several factors: 1) Since early childbearers start their families early, at 1 and 5 years after high school fewer early than later childbearers are working (Card, 1977). Ten years after high school, however, their children are older while later childbearers have just begun their families and have young children in the home. Thus the early childbearers were more likely to be working 10 years after high school in the Card study and at age 24 in the Hofferth et al. study. 2) Early childbearers may have a greater economic need to work. Never married mothers who had an early birth have a high likelihood of being employed (Haggstrom et al., 1981). In a related study Trussell and Abowd (1979) also found that among whites increasing age at first birth lowers the propensity to work by raising the wage required to attract them into the work force.

There are sex differences in the association between early childbearing and employment. At 1 and 5 years out of high school more males in the adolescent childbearer group were working, compared to their classmates (Card, 1977). Thus for males, each parenthood leads to entrance into the labor force. However, by 11 years out, these differences had disappeared. By 11 years after high school most non-parenting males had also completed their schooling and entered the work force so the difference disappears.

Females, in contrast, work less while they have young children in the home, but as their children mature, they return to work. Thus the timing of the birth affects when that hiatus will occur. By the mid twenties, the later childbearers are beginning their families and dropping out of the work force while the early childbearers are reentering.

Work Experience

This is the only area in which there is any disagreement among the various studies, and this disagreement is not hard to resolve. Two studies (McLaughlin, 1977, and Koo and Bilsborrow, 1979) found that, controlling for age, education and socioeconomic background, early childbearers accumulated more experience after the birth of the first child (McLaughlin) or after marriage (Koo and Bilsborrow) than later ones. McLaughlin and Koo and Bilsborrow hypothesize that early childbearers have a greater economic need to work than later ones. In contrast, Hofferth et al. (1978) show no relationship between age at first birth and proportion of years worked since age 18 by age 24, net of other factors. In a study that looks at work experience at age 27, Hofferth and Moore (1979) found that later childbearers actually have accumulated more work experience since age 18. Again, these differences are probably a function of the time period over which experience is measured. The former two studies looked only at experience following a birth or marriage while the latter looked at experience since age 18. Later childbearers probably worked more than early childbearers prior to marriage/birth, while less following marriage/birth. Thus the differences in results between the several studies are explainable. Experience depends on where you start to accumulate it. No comparable data are available for males.

Occupational Status

Researchers have measured occupational status in a variety of ways: the National Opinion Research Center's Occupational Prestige Scale and the Duncan Socioeconomic Index (SEI) are the most common. In general, researchers find no direct effect of a woman's age at first birth on later occupational status or prestige. Koo and Bilsborrow found no impact of age at first birth on occupational prestige scores of women 35 to 39 and 40 to 44 in 1973, controlling for a variety of background factors, education and work experience. Using the Duncan Socioeconomic Index (SEI) Hofferth et al. (1978) found no different between early and later childbearers at age 24 in occupational prestige. Haggstrom et al. (1981) found that scores on a career index similar to the SEI differed little by birth timing.

McLaughlin (1977) used measures of earning potential in the short term and the long term, as he called them. The short term measure was the median 1959 earnings of all women working full-time in the first job held at least 6 months within the first five years after the first birth. The long term earning potential was median 1959 earnings of all women working full time in the occupation held currently or most recently for at least six months. For both measures there was a positive but non-significant direct impact of age at first birth net of education, experience and socioeconomic status.

Finally, Koo and Bilsborrow (1979) also failed to find any direct impact of age at first birth on the husband's occupational status.

Even though no direct effect of age at first birth on occupational status was found, there do appear to be some indirect effects. Card (1977) found age at first birth to be a determinant of occupational prestige for both men and women 11 years out of high school, net of background factors such as race, SES, aptitude and educational plans held in high school. A stronger relationship was found for women than for men. Other research has shown a strong relationship between educational attainment and occupational status, and between work experience and occupational status (McLaughlin, 1977). To the extent that age at first birth reduces schooling completed, it is likely to reduce occupational status later on. The effects of age at first birth on work experience are somewhat unclear. McLaughlin (1977) concluded that the strongest indirect effect operates through education.

Economic Well-Being

Women's Hourly Wages and Annual Earnings

The evidence is consistent across all studies: there is no direct impact of early childbearing on women's hourly wages Hofferth et al., 1978; McLaughlin, 1977; Koo and Bilsborrow, 1979; and Trussell and Abowd, 1979). The same appears to hold for males (Haggstrom et al., 1981).

The evidence consistently finds no direct impact of the age at first birth on female earnings, net of other factors (Koo and Bilsborrow, 1979; Hofferth et al., 1978; McLaughlin, 1977; Haggstrom et al., 1981). However, there do appear to be indirect effects. Card (1977) found that with only controls for background variables, adolescent childbearers earned less than later childbearers or those childless at all follow-ups. Other researchers have specified these intervening effects. An early birth increases family size, which reduces the proportion of years worked and the hours worked last year, which reduces earnings at age 27. At early birth reduces schooling, which reduces the proportion of years worked and reduces hours and earnings at age 27. Adding all the effects up, early age at first birth is associated with reduced earnings, but this is because it is associated with reduced schooling and increased family size.

The length of time since (most recent) birth is an important factor indirectly affecting earnings. The older at first birth, the younger the youngest child at the survey date, the fewer hours the mother will be working, and, as a result, the less she will earn. Thus Koo and Bilsborrow found that later childbearers, among whites, actually earned less, but this was because they worked less.

Spouse's or Other Family Income

Again, results are consistent. Age at first birth has no direct impact on other family income (Koo and Bilsborrow, 1979; Hofferth and Moore, 1979; Card, 1977; Haggstrom et al., 1981). Among males, at five years out of school adolescent fathers were earning more than comparable peers; 11 years out the difference had disappeared (Card, 1977). At that point, they were all out of school and in the labor force.

There are a number of indirect effects. An early first birth is associated with less schooling completed at age 27, which is associated with lower income of other family members at age 27 (Hofferth and Moore, 1979). An early first birth is associated with having a large number of children, which is associated with a lower income of other family members at age 27. Because of these two effects, an early first birth is associated with lower income of other family members at age 27, but the effect is indirect.

Family Income, Living Standards and Poverty

The effects of age at first birth on income and poverty are consistent with its effects on a female respondent's own earnings and other family income. There is no direct effect of age at first birth on family income, net of other factors (Koo and Bilsborrow, 1979; Hofferth and Moore, 1979; Haggstrom et al., 1981). Nor is there a direct impact of age at first birth on whether or not the family is poor (Koo and Bilsborrow, 1979; Hofferth and Moore, 1979).

In contrast, early childbearers have higher living standards in midlife (age 35–44) because they have fewer “equivalent adult consumption units” (EACs) (i.e., fewer children in the home) than later childbearers (Koo and Bilsborrow, 1979). Although early childbearers had a greater number of children than later childbearers, they had them a longer time ago. Thus by the time the mother reaches age 35–44, most of the children of early childbearers have grown up and left home

In contrast, the children of later childbearers are younger and the majority still remain in the home. This points out the necessity of comparing young women who are at similar points in the life cycle to be able to make adequate comparisons of economic well being. Comparisons at a later point in the life cycle would be useful. (For a comparison of delayers with average age childbearers at a much later point in the life cycle see also Hofferth, 1984).

Indirect Effects of Early Childbearing

Even though there is no direct effect of an early first birth on family income or poverty status of young women, it is clear that there may be substantial indirect causal effects due to the impact of an early birth on schooling and on family size and composition. Level of schooling is a consistently important factor determining earnings. Family size is a consistently important factor affecting labor force participation by the mother and per person availability of income. Therefore both variables can be expected to affect family income and poverty status of a mother by affecting whether or not she is employed and how much she earns. And since both are affected by an early first birth, an early first birth will indirectly affect later family income and poverty. By tracing out these intervening paths we can better identify the kinds of impacts that an early first birth has, the magnitude of each of the effects, and the overall contribution of an early first birth to economic well-being.

There are two studies (Koo and Bilsborrow, 1979 and Hofferth and Moore, 1979) that have traced out a complex chain of effects from a first birth to later family income and poverty. These two papers form the basis of this part of the review. Other papers that have looked at part of the process will be referenced when appropriate. Two analyses were conducted in each study: one on all women; a second on only those women who had a first birth before they reached age 19.

Results for all Women

According to data for women of all races from the National Longitudinal Survey of Young Women, for each year a first birth is delayed, other family income at age 27 increases by almost $500 per year; the woman's own income increases by $200 (Hofferth and Moore, 1979). The effect is stronger for whites than for blacks. The effects are similar for whites in the NSFG. The effect of delaying a birth from 17 (or under) to age 18–19 is to raise family income by almost $700 (Koo and Bilsborrow, 1979).

As a result, for each year a young woman delays her first birth, her chances of being in a family below the poverty level is reduced by 2.2 percentage points among women of all races, a reduction over the total probability of being poor of 22 percent (Hofferth and Moore, 1979).

Both studies (Koo and Bilsborrow and Hofferth and Moore) found that, among women of all ages, the largest part of the indirect effect of an early birth on later economic well-being is due to the larger family sizes of early childbearers. Among women of all races, over half of the impact on own earnings and 80 percent of the impact on poverty status is due to differential family size in the Hofferth-Moore study. Twenty percent of the total impact on own earnings is due to the impact of an early birth on work experience and on hours worked last year. Only 6 percent of the total effect of an early first birth is through schooling. Of the effects on other family income, three quarters is due to the smaller families of delayers, one-quarter to greater schooling. Finally, of the total effect on poverty, 80 percent is due to smaller families of postponers, 12 percent to greater schooling, with 8 percent to differential labor force participation.

In the Koo-Bilsborrow study, among women of all ages, the largest portion of the indirect effect of an early birth is also due to the differential family sizes of early and later childbearers. One of the reasons is that a path through education was not specified for the total sample of women. But even when a path through schooling is specified, the effect through family size is as large as that through schooling.

It is certainly clear, therefore, that among women of all ages, the effect of a first birth through education on later earnings is very small, while that through family size is substantial.

Adolescent Childbearers

It is among the very earliest childbearers that we would expect the largest indirect effects of childbearing and the largest impact through schooling. The total effect of delaying a first birth for one year during the teen years on the earnings of the youngest childbearers is larger than that among women of all ages (Hofferth and Moore, 1979). Seventy percent of the impact of early birth on own earnings of those whose first child is born at or before age 18 operates through reduced schooling. Another 30 percent operates through number of children. Koo and Bilsborrow also find a strong effect through schooling for white teenage childbearers, but not for black teen childbearers. About half of the total effect is due to reduced schooling.

Blacks versus Whites

In both studies the results are weaker for black than for white women. Age at first birth does not appear to be as important for the black woman as it is for the white woman. Among both black and white women the primary negative indirect impact of an early first birth on later economic well-being is through its impact on family size. An early first birth means more children by age 27 with its concomitant negative impact on labor force participation and earnings (Hofferth and Moore, 1979). However, among black women, early childbearers accumulate more work experience than later childbearers, increasing their earnings at age 27. Thus an early first birth is associated with somewhat higher well-being among blacks; among whites, early childbearing predicts substantially lower income. An early first birth has no impact directly or indirectly on the incomes of other family members and very little on the probability of being poor among blacks, whereas there is a substantial negative impact of an early first birth among whites both on other family incomes and on the probability of being poor at age 27.

Welfare Receipt

Early childbearers are more likely to be in households receiving AFDC, but the relationship is mostly indirect. Once other factors such as socioeconomic background, education, age at first marriage and timing of first birth are controlled, the relationship disappears (Moore et al., 1978). A premarital first birth is associated with welfare receipt, particularly among young female heads. A premarital birth increases the probability of going on welfare for those not enrolled and reduces the probability that those already enrolled will exit welfare (Moore at al., 1978).

Another way to look at the problem is to ask whether early childbearers are disproportionately represented among welfare recipients. It appears that they are. Moore (1978) aproached this question by asking what proportion of AFDC and non-AFDC households contain mothers who began childbearing as teenagers? She (and other researchers) found that in the mid 1970s between 60 and 80 percent of mothers under 30 in AFDC households were teen mothers, compared to only 35 percent of mothers in non-AFDC households (Moore, 1978; Moore and Burt, 1982; Block and Dubin, 1981; Scheirer, 1983).

There appears to be an association between early childbearing and welfare receipt. However, this effect is mostly indirect: an early pregnancy may precipitate a premature and instable marriage. An early and premarital birth creates a family form with a high probability of needing public assistance. The low educational levels and large family sizes of teen childbearers increase their probability of depending on public assistance later on.

Factors Leading to Successful Early Childbearers

A recent study (Furstenberg and Brooks-Gunn, 1985) has explored the factors associated with variation in outcomes among early childbearers. The researchers followed up a sample of 300 women in Baltimore who had their first child at age 18 or younger one, three, five and seventeen years after that first birth. The purpose of the study was to see what factors and conditions affected the adaptation of the early childbearers and their eventual economic well-being. The outcomes, measured 17 years after first birth, were 1) whether receiving welfare in 1984, and 2) whether economically secure, that is whether family income totalled $25,000 per year or more in 1984. The factors associated with whether a family was economically secure in 1984 were almost identical to those associated with whether a family was receiving welfare, though the direction of effects was the reverse.

Three family resource factors were associated with later economic well-being: high parental education, small parental family size and welfare experience as a child. Those whose parents had high levels of schooling were twice as likely to be secure as adults, and 4 times less likely to be on welfare. Those who came from smaller families were more likely to be secure and less likely to be on welfare because they were less likely to have a second child soon after the first. Finally, those from welfare families were more likely to receive welfare themselves soon after a birth, and as a result, were more likely to receive it and less likely to be economically secure as adults. These are factors over which the individual has relatively little control.

Characteristics of the individual during the high school years and over which some control can be exercised include school performance, school continuation, type of school attended and educational aspirations. Those who had high aspirations were more likely to to attend the special school for pregnant girls and to remain in school, both of which were associated with a lower likelihood of being on welfare and a greater chance of being economically secure later on. Being at grade level was also associated with a greater chance of being economically secure as an adult.

The factor over which individuals have substantial control is their use of birth control. The researchers found that those who used birth control had fewer additional children soon after the first, and were more secure and less likely to be on welfare later on as a result.

Planned interventions were also important. Girls who attended either the special school for pregnant girls or attended the hospital prenatal program were more likely to contracept than those who didn't (Furstenberg and Brooks-Gunn, 1985).

What career contingencies, factors impinging during the young adult years, affect later well-being among teen mothers? Those who married and who remained married were less likely to receive welfare and more likely to be economically secure 17 years after the first birth. Marriage is a key to economic success, but only when the marriage lasts. Unfortunately, the chances of having a stable marriage were very low in this sample.

Early marriage was usually a losing bet. Women who married early were especially prone to economic dependency when their marriages did not work out because they frequently had cut short their educational careers to enter matrimony. Women who married later, especially if they did not wed the child's father, were also in a precarious situation for these relationships were particularly prone to dissolution. Women who delayed marriage indefinitely to continue their education usually avoided economic dependency but they rarely could achieve economic security on the strength of their own earning power (Furstenberg and Brooks-Gunn, 1985:92).

Work experience appears to have little impact on economic success. In fact, early work experience may be harmful, particularly if it prevents school completion (Furstenberg and Brooks-Gunn, 1985). Residential experience has a small impact on economic success. Women who remained in the parental household for three or more years were less likely to be economically secure at the 17 year follow-up, although the effect is small. Thus, although some parental support and help is important after a first birth, lengthy coresidence does not enhance economic independence.

The most important factors in later economic success or failure were family resources, aspirations, marital success and control of fertility. Clearly early childbearers who are ambitious, who continue in school, who use birth control and who avoid a rapid subsequent birth are better able to control their long run family size. The earlier results show that this is one of the most important ways that early childbearers can increase their prospects for economic security and independence as adults.


Early childbearing has an impact on society, for when individuals cannot realize their full educational and occupational potential, society loses their economic contributions. In addition, if early childbearers utilize public services more than other women, public expenditures on programs such as AID to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Medicaid, and food stamps increase.

The previous section has shown that AFDC mothers are more likely to have been teen mothers than are American women in general. Three studies have attempted to estimate the cost of teen childbearing in terms of the public expenditures on women who were teens when they had a first birth. This total does not necessarily represent the amount that could be saved if all these mothers had postponed their first birth, since some would have required public assistance regardless of their age at first birth.

Moore (1978) and Wertheimer and Moore (1982) analyzed three data sets to estimate 1975 welfare expenditures on teen mothers. The results show that about half of the AFDC budget goes to households in which the mother was a teenager at first birth, about $4.65 to $5 billion in expenditures just through AFDC (Moore and Burt, 1982:Table 8). Adding food stamp benefits plus medicaid benefits to mothers and children increases the total to $8.55 billion in 1975 (Moore and Burt, 1982:Table 9).

Scheirer (1982) estimated AFDC payments to current and prior teen mothers under age 30 (using the 1975 and 1977 AFDC surveys) to total $2.5 billion in 1975 and $3 billion in 1977. Moore's estimate of payments to households of women age 14–30 and who gave birth before age 20 was $2.4 billion in 1975. The estimates based on a number of different data sets are very similar.

Block and Dubin estimated AFDC costs for teen childbearers in Monroe County, New York in 1977 and 1978. They found the average cost per case to be $4,262 and $3,494 in 1978 for teen and non-teen childbearers respectively under 30 in that year. Scheirer also found that households of teen mothers received larger grants; however, this was because of the larger number of children of teen childbearers than older mothers. Once other factors were controlled the direct effect disappeared. Block and Dubin showed that over time older childbearers do catch up somewhat; however, substantial differences in family size remain. Scheirer also showed that the length of time on welfare is a function of age at first birth. Early childbearers spend slightly more time on AFDC. Thus the higher welfare cost of early childbearers is due to three factors: the higher proportion of early childbearers who are recipients, the higher cost per case, and the longer duration of payment (Scheirer, 1982:3).

Finally, in a recent study (see this volume, Chapter 10, using a similar mehtodology to that of Moore (1978) Burt estimated total AFDC costs in 1985, due to teenage mothers, to total 16.6 billion dollars, double the 1975 Moore estimate.


Further analyses addressed the relative impact on public sector costs of reducing births as opposed to mediating the effects of an early birth (Moore and Wertheimer, 1984:Tables 1,2; Wertheimer and Moore, 1982:Table 37). Three scenarios which reduced first births to teens and three which would mediate the effects of an early birth were compared to a baseline scenario in which present trends were continued. The results show dollar savings for all approaches, but a much greater savings when a first birth is averted. The greatest savings occur when the fertility of all teenagers is reduced by 50 percent—the number of women age 20–29 receiving AFDC payments in 1990 would be reduced by 35 percent, compared with the baseline scenario; public sector costs for AFDC, Medicaid and Food Stamps for families of women 20–29 would be reduced by an estimated $1.4 billion.

Eliminating births to unmarried women under 18 reduces the number of women 20–29 receiving AFDC by 17 percent and reduces public sector costs for them by $.9 billion. Reducing the fertility of teens under age 18 by 50 percent reduces the number receiving AFDC by 14 percent and reduces public sector costs by $ 72 billion. Reducing the subsequent childbearing of young teen childbearers reduces by 11 percent the number receiving AFDC, and reduces public sector costs by $1 billion. The reduction in the number receiving AFDC due to reducing school dropout of teen childbearers and to increasing their marriage probabilities are two and 11 percent, respectively. These represent declines in expenditures of $.22 billion and $.77 billion. Thus the results support the common sense notion that prevention is preferable to remedial cures. Of the ameliorative strategies, reducing subsequent fertility is the most effective, and the one that appears to become even more significant over time. The scenario with the least impact is reducing school drop-out. Although initially surprising, this result seems to arise from the relatively low economic return to education for women such that even well-educated women earn relatively little. Marriage appears to improve the short-term economic status of young women more than additional schooling.

Contrary to initial expectations, none of the scenarios has a significant impact upon labor force participation, hours worked, earnings or taxes. There are several possible reasons for the lack of effect. Moore and Wertheimer (1984; Wertheimer and Moore, 1982) cite as reasons the lack of strong relationship between education and occupational attainment for this group of young women. This argument is supported by data from McLaughlin, 1977, who finds that early childbearers are less able than later childbearers to translate additional schooling into greater work experience and higher earnings potential. Furstenberg and Brooks-Gunn (1985) also failed to find a strong relationship among early childbearers between schooling and later economic security as adults. However, an alternative explanation is the differential life cycle stage hypothesis referred to earlier. The women in the Wertheimer-Moore study are still relatively young—ages 20 to 29 in 1990, the endpoint of the computer simulation. Since this is the period of childbearing for most women, delayers would be beginning families at the time that the early childbearers would be moving back into the work force. This would tend to minimize differences between early and later childbearers.

It is important to note that differential patterns of childbearing do have a very strong impact on public sector costs even at ages 20 to 29. The research cited above strongly suppports the previous conclusion that early childbearing does have substantial long term economic costs for both the individual and for society, and that rapid subsequent childbearing and large family sizes among early childbearers are a major reason for the greater disadvantages of early childbearers and the large cost to the public. These serious consequences underscore the benefits of policies which delay the first birth and prevent or delay subsequent births to teenagers.

Scheirer et al. (1982) found that the indirect effects of a one-year increase in mother's age at first birth, aggregated across the total population in 1975 of AFDC families with a mother under age 30, generated expected costs savings of $12.5 million per month or approximately $150 million per year (without including any savings generated by any reduction in the number of recipients.)


This review has included only those studies that controlled for several important prior differences between early and later childbearers, of which socioeconomic status background is the most important. Several studies were able to control for aptitude as well—the Card study, for example. All the studies cited are consistent in at least one regard. All find an additional negative impact of early childbearing on later economic well-being after adjusting for background and other prior differences.

The studies reviewed here are especially important because they reveal the process whereby an early birth affects later economic well-being. First, most of the impacts on later economic well-being are indirect. That is to say, an early birth reduces schooling and increases later family size. It is these variables that reduce later labor force participation, earnings and family income, not the early birth per se. This implies that if the links between an early birth and schooling or family size could be broken, so would the link between an early birth and economic disadvantage. This is the optimistic part. It has proved difficult, in fact, to break these links. More research on the factors associated with lessening these connections is needed.

Second, the factors that disadvantage early childbearers relative to later childbearers in economic well-being are the same factors that discriminate the more from the less successful early childbearers. One difference is that for certain types of adolescent programs eligibility depends on childbearing status.

These studies have also pointed out important race and ethnic differences. Because so little is known about Hispanics, this chapter focuses on black-white differences. The important difference is that blacks are not affected as negatively by an early rather than later first birth as are whites. There are several possible hypotheses as to why this is so. First, early childbearing is common in the black community; therefore, institutions and mechanisms have developed to help young women cope. A second hypothesis is that opportunities have not developed enough in the black community so that the differences among young women with high and low opportunities are not as great. Another hypothesis might be that blacks start earlier, but that they terminate childbearing earlier; thus they can devote themselves to employment in their early twenties, when later childbearers are just beginning. Another hypothesis is that the reservation wage for blacks is so much lower than whites that they do not have the luxury of remaining out of the work force as do whites.

Although most of the research conducted to date has analyzed the impact of an early first birth on the young mother, the evidence presented suggests important impacts on the father as well. More research needs to be conducted to better describe the impact of early fatherhood on young men. Improved data are just now becoming available (see, for example, Marsiglio, 1986) and should increase researchers' ability to determine the consequences of early childbearing for males.

A final point is that all the studies mentioned here are based on data collected in the 1960's and early 1970's. Birth years of the respondents date from the late 1920's to the early 1950's. Their high school experience predates the implementation of Title IX in 1975, prohibiting discrimination against pregnant or parenting teenagers in publicly funded school programs. Thus we don't know what changes have occurred between these studies and current students. There are now enough years of longitudinal data available from several recent national data resources to replicate some of these studies of long term consequences of teenage childbearing and see what changes have occurred. Of course, as adolescents charge, the rest of society has also been changing. On the one hand, today family size remains low and education high. Relative to the majority of adults, not completing high school and having more than two children probably represents an even greater disadvantage than it might have been even one decade ago. On the other hand, several studies show that a small amount of additional schooling would decrease early childbearers' dependence on public assistance and increase their economic security as adults only slightly relative to the large impact of a change in childbearing patterns. Thus one conclusion is that although increasing school completion is an important objective, the relationship between schooling and women's earning power is still too weak for the latter alone to raise living standards. Even today women's long term economic security is heavily dependent on marital success and fertility control.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK219229


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