Beyond the notion of redlining certain infants, more conceptual atrocities loom in how we choose to define social costs when calculating the potential worth of a class of babies. In a climate of prejudice created by political pressures to produce compliant cost-benefit calculations, "social costs" will not be fairly calculated. The crude biases dominating social-cost studies of teen motherhood involve selecting measures that emphasize only those costs attributable to the targeted group while ignoring their benefits; ignoring costs imposed by more favored groups in society; and blaming personal choices while ignoring external conditions.
Early social-cost studies of teen motherhood such as those conducted by the Urban Institute recapitulated nineteenth-century travesties. They compared the welfare payments, education levels, child health, and so on of teen mothers straight across with those of teens who did not have babies or with mothers in their twenties and found (presto!) that teen mothers generated gargantuan social costs. Yes, if one compares outcomes of children born to mothers living in Southside Chicago with ones living on the Lakefront, large differences will be found. That also was true a century ago, when such disparities were blamed on inferior-race motherhood. Back then, the University of Chicago School of social scientists' famous 1920s mappings showed crime and other problems tracked the severe social disadvantages characterizing transitional urban neighborhoods, not racial or immigrant qualities.10
Indulging the same fundamental error as 1900 calculators who graded fit and unfit babies along race and class hierarchies, modern social-costers ignored the fact that teen mothers were vastly poorer than teen non-mothers and non-teen mothers before they had babies. Both failed to consider whether poorer child outcomes were due to external conditions rather than innate character. Recognizing this problem, some researchers inaugurated studies comparing various mother and child outcomes of teen mothers with those of their childless teen sisters or cousins, with much-diminished and inconsistent results. For example, researchers led by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenburg initially found teen motherhood generally forecast lower incomes and worse child outcomes,12 while those led by University of Michigan health scientist Arline Geronimus found teen mothers and their children fared no worse or even a bit better than their non-parenting teen counterparts.13 Birth-order effects and the differing conditions in which girls were raised at different times in the same families continued to beg the question of whether the baby or a unique set of external stresses that predicted teen motherhood was the true culprit. Interestingly, Furstenburg's most recent, long-term study of 300 teenage mothers in Baltimore directly challenged claims, including by President Obama, that teenage motherhood is the chief cause of poverty:
Early childbearing was not the main cause of the economic difficulties these women faced in their lives, and did not trap them in welfare dependence for the rest of their lives. Having a child as a teen, which most policymakers believe to be a powerful source of disadvantage, had only modest effects on their educational and economic achievement in later life, after taking into account their economic circumstances prior to becoming pregnant. The teen mothers in Baltimore did better than most observers would have predicted in continuing their education, and did not fare substantially worse than their counterparts who postponed parenthood until their twenties.
When more comprehensive, longer-term social cost studies began to find that teen motherhood really was not that costly, the next step for officials and interest groups was to misrepresent the studies. The most serious example was the Robin Hood Foundation's distortion of the first study of the long-term costs and benefits of teen motherhood it had commissioned as a centerpiece of the fledgling National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy's 1997
press conference on the "public costs of teenage childbearing." Robin Hood understood the rules. The foundation already had denounced teen motherhood as "pervasive and damaging" to poor communities. It had faithfully adopted the political debate's limited moral horizon: even if teen mothers were "disproportionately concentrated in poor, often racially segregated communities characterized by inferior housing, high crime, poor schools, and limited health services" and many "had been victims of physical and/or sexual abuse," Robin Hood did not challenge government authorities to confront these devastating conditions—ones, as we will see, that underlay the vast bulk of the "social costs" that studies misattributed to teenage motherhood.
Rather, all agreed, only those costs that could be assigned to teen mothers' behaviors and only remediations directed at changing their behaviors would be considered. The social-cost parameters chosen—earnings, taxes paid, use of social and welfare programs, poorer educational achievement, higher rates of incarceration—were already biased against the poor. This choice of factors would guarantee the conclusion that virtually all childbearing by low-income parents, not just teenaged ones, generated "social costs." If Robin Hoods' and National Campaign's guiding principle was that only affluent parents should have children, why not state that directly?
Consider how differently a social-cost analysis would turn out if factors unfavorable to richer parenthood were chosen instead. For example, Congressional economists have estimated the annual costs of corporate crime at $250 billion (in 1997 dollars); repeated tax-funded bailouts for banking and loan industries in 2008 and 2009 alone totaled hundreds of billions of dollars.16 Corporate executives and directors overwhelmingly are white and affluent. Using the same social-cost assumptions applying population-level welfare and tax expenditure estimates for teen mothers to apply hundreds of billions of dollars in annual corporate corruption and bailout costs to white parents, each white baby born generates an average of tens of thousands of dollars in social costs every year. The social costs of more affluent whites having children would dwarf the paltry $7.3 billion Robin Hood now blames on teen motherhood annually.
For another, climate change is ranked by the United Nations as among the most potentially disastrous global crises. Greenhouse gas emissions, especially the byproducts of carbon-based fuels, causing climate change are substantially higher among individuals with larger homes, more and larger vehicles, more driving, and greater product consumption. Each child born to an affluent parent, on average, contributes vastly more to greenhouse gas accumulation than a child born to a poorer parent, a serious environmental cost widely predicted to trigger massive social costs such as the need to relocate entire cities, industries, and agricultural areas. If eugenicists assigned all teen mothers, collectively, the costs of welfare, imprisonment, and other public expenses attributable to some of the children born to teen mothers, then doesn't fairness dictate that we assign to all white and affluent parents the full costs of bailouts, corporate crime, pollution, climate change, and other social and public costs attributable to their offspring? Class bias is another way in which today's social-cost evaluations of teen childbearing resemble the eugenics "studies" of a century ago.
Robin Hood commissioned UCLA (now Duke University) economist V. Joseph Hotz and colleagues to evaluate the economic issues in teen motherhood. Hotz's landmark 1997 study was hailed by other top researchers, such as Harvard social policy professor Christopher Jencks, as the best ever. The details of Hotz's updated, 2005 study are examined below.
Hotz's model differed from those of previous researchers in two big ways. First, his team looked not just at the initial years after birth, when all families incur high costs, but also at how former-teen mothers were faring 10 to 20 years later. Second, his study compared mothers who had babies before age 20 not to all young women or to random samples based on broad demographics, but to poorer young women who had intended to have babies during teen years but had miscarried and who then had their first baby after age 20. This "natural experiment" produced two sets of teen women whose poverty and background characteristics, unlike those used in previous studies, turned out to be remarkably similar. Thus, Hotz's design focused on exactly the question at issue: is it having a baby as a teenager, or the previous circumstances of the mother regardless of age, that generates social costs?
Hotz and colleagues' findings were surprising. Over time, former teen mothers actually earned more money, paid more taxes, and saved taxpayer costs compared to similarly situated young women who became mothers later. Further, teen mothers were just as likely to graduate from high school or obtain equivalent GED credentials and just as likely to wind up with male partners. Meanwhile, similarly situated young women who waited until their twenties to have babies were saddled with caring for young children into their late twenties and early thirties, reducing their earning potential at the very time they could have commanded higher wages.
Hotz's findings, in my interpretation, were devastating to official depictions. Hotz and colleagues suggested that teen motherhood actually represented a rational, long-term investment by which poorer young women from harsh family backgrounds achieved greater stability, attracted public and personal resources, and, within a decade, were earning more money and taking less public assistance than their counterparts who waited to have babies. Such a finding applied only to the poorest young women; early motherhood would be costly for more affluent teens planning higher education and careers—exactly the advantaged classes from whence blossomed so many of those who condemned the "costs" of poorer teens' offspring.
The strongest implication of Hotz's research was that if official America wanted fewer teen mothers, the best policy was to reduce the severe poverty that made teen motherhood a sensible, long-term economic choice. Hotz's 1997 findings called into question the very existence of a National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the massive, bipartisan political and institutional campaigns exploiting the issue. Right before the National Campaign's star-studded press conference slated to announce the huge "public costs" generated by teen moms, their own study, the best done to date, had seriously undermined their case.
The National Campaign, Robin Hood Foundation, Urban Institute, and others at the party could have declared Hotz's startling findings worthy of further analysis and suggested potential changes in policy away from stigma and prevention and toward investment in poorer families. Not a chance. The official view was politically precast; the academics they hired were supposed to produce "research" to support it. As punishment, Hotz was disinvited from the press conference and reception.18
So, Robin Hood's executive summary report (the only one anyone reads) buried Hotz's unwelcome findings and selectively presented only the costs that teen mothers generate during the initial years after giving birth. Hotz's finding of long-term benefits was obscured. Robin Hood's deceptive cost numbers presented in Kids Having Kids' colorful executive-summary charts became the basis for disciples around the country. For example, California's Public Health Institute presented state lawmakers with cost-benefit analyses of teen-pregnancy prevention programs for every legislative district based on this fraudulent metric.19 Spend x on funding this client's prevention program, and then save an even larger y for every teen's baby not born, the logic went. That is how crazy privatized social policy's baby-pricings had become.
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