The 29-Year Effects of Having an Educated, Non-Teen Mom

latina gradWhat if we could do a rigorous simulation that would tell us whether our interventions intended to benefit children played out as we wanted them to? What if there were a way to predict that, without time-travelling? The Social Genome Model does this.

The Human Genome Project mapped the genes of human beings in order to understand the role of the human genome in health and disease. The Social Genome Project maps other things that matter—such as birth weight, family of origin, academic outcomes, social-emotional skills, and college graduation—to determine their roles in enabling or impeding economic success (defined as reaching a middle-class income level as an adult). The Social Genome Project is a joint venture of the Brookings Institution, Child Trends, and the Urban Institute. Simulations using this model enable us to estimate the long-term effects of social interventions without our having to wait decades for outcomes to play out.

One thing we’ve put a lot of effort into as a society is reducing teen childbearing. Although the teen birth rate has dropped dramatically in recent years, it is still high and stubbornly so among some groups (such as adolescents in foster care). More than 275,000 babies were born to teen girls in 2013. Teen girls who have babies are less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be poor as adults, and more likely to have children with poorer educational, behavioral, and health outcomes throughout their lives. Our research on Hispanic families suggests that reducing teen childbearing among Latinas would be an effective anti-poverty strategy for this group.

But there are so many factors that play into a person’s life. Is it teen childbearing itself that leads to poor economic outcomes for teen moms and their children? Or is it something else about these teens’ lives?

Not wanting to wait decades to find out, we ran a simulation to assess the implications of delaying childbirth and attaining more education for the children of teen mothers, when those children reach age 29. In other words, would the eventual child of a teenager fare better if a teenager in those same circumstances had the same child at a later age, and/or earned a high school diploma? We used the Social Genome Model, which uses data from the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, to run simulations.

We found strong links between increasing maternal education among teen mothers and improving well-being in the next generation. The largest gain in a teen mom’s child’s income at age 29 is a result of the mother delaying first birth and completing high school. Considered separately, the longer a teen birth is delayed, the larger the average family income of her child will be; if she earns a high school diploma, her child’s family income will raise even more.

Beyond income, we found that delays in maternal age at first birth, or a teen mom’s earning a high school diploma, or both, would result in an increase (of 2 to 5 percent) in the proportion of teen moms’ children earning a college degree by age 29. When teen mothers’ births are delayed and they earn a high school diploma, their children are less likely to describe themselves as being in poor health, slightly less likely to report symptoms of depression, and less likely to be parents themselves by age 29.

This simulation demonstrates that the impacts of teen childbearing span generations, and policy and program efforts should continue to attend to this issue despite recent successes. For more info, read our new brief, “‘What if’ You Earned a Diploma and Delayed Parenthood? Intergenerational Simulations of Delayed Childbearing and Increased Education.”

Kristin A. Moore, Senior Scholar

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