pregnant bellyWe don't need a reality TV series to show us that life for a teen mom is tough. The conventional wisdom is that teen pregnancy leads to poverty -- especially if you never finish high school. But are we looking at this backwards?

Maybe it's not that having a baby makes teen moms poor. Maybe it's that teen moms have babies because they're poor.

That's the idea researchers Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip Levine considered when they took a close look at teen pregnancy. They found that it's when a teen sees that her prospects in life are dim that she chooses to become a mother.

Put another way, if a teen girl has a lot to look forward to in life -- college, a career, marriage to another college-educated person with a career -- she's going to be motivated to avoid pregnancy. She has more to lose. But if you have nothing to lose? If it looks like you'll be poor no matter what you do, what reason to you have to avoid pregnancy? At least a baby is something to look forward to.

I know this doesn't explain everything. My sister was a teen mom. We grew up in the same middle-class family. I went off to college and she became a mother at seventeen. Her reasons were complicated -- and she did finish high school, then college, and eventually married, and is now very comfortable. Maybe she's the exception that proves the rule?

What's more, the researchers also discovered that after a few years, teem moms aren't much worse off than other teens who miscarry when they become pregnant. And it doesn't matter if their state has strict abortion laws or sex ed or great parents. What matters more are things like income gaps between their family and other families around them, the educational level of their moms, and how much proof they see that hard work will actually get them ahead in life. Put that way, making teen pregnancy a matter of personal choice seems to put too much pressure on teens and not enough on all of us.

Do you agree with the researchers that teen moms have babies because they're poor?


Image via one tiny spark/Flickr