Teenage mothers are often blamed for the hard circumstances that their children may face, but fathers may play a role in the future success of their children, according to a new study co-authored by Anna Aizer, professor of economics. The research analyzed administrative data sets from Norway and found that the father’s background plays a key role in the child’s development and life outcomes.
The group looked into IQ, schooling, earnings at age 30, welfare status and other factors to measure the differences in outcomes between adults who had teen mothers and those who did not, Aizer said.
The study suggests that the underlying disadvantage of the mother compounded with that of the father is what is really responsible for lower outcomes in their children — not just the mother’s position, Aizer said.
A novel component of this study was that it examined the fathers of children born to teen mothers. Kjell Salvanes, co-author of the paper, explained that the tax system in Norway creates a strong incentive for mothers to report who the father of their child is at the time of birth, even if he is not present.
“Not only are the mothers who give birth as teenagers very different, but so are the partners, so are the fathers — they are younger, they have lower IQs. That explains part of the worse outcomes that you see for these kids,” Aizer said.
Surprisingly, when studying children of teenage mothers, the average age of the father was not below 20 as one might expect, but instead about 26, Aizer said. In 2011, the average age of all Norwegian fathers was 33.4 years old, according to the Norwegian government.
To understand the influence that fathers have on these children, fathers’ backgrounds and their presence around their children are important, Salvanes said. This approach may help form policies designed to help children born to disadvantaged households or teen parents who may subsequently perform unfavorably in school and the labor market.
The paper worked to further investigate whether teen childbearing itself was the root cause of weaker outcomes, or if these were because of economic disadvantages that teen mothers face, said Phillip Levine P’16, a professor of economics at Wellesley College, who was not associated with this paper.
An important aspect of the study was its control of the background of teen mothers. The study ensured that there were no cross comparisons between dissimilar mothers. By controlling the experiment, the study was able to show that “being born to a teen mother is a little bit detrimental to a child’s subsequent outcomes, but not as bad as the raw differential would make it seem,” Levine said.
The authors relied on birth cohorts going back to 1950, Salvanes said. He added that since the administrative data set comprises the whole population and is comprehensive, unlike U.S. data, researchers can make claims about specific groups and analyze an individual’s progress over several decades. This allows researchers to trace a child from birth to adulthood and examine different data points collected along that trajectory.
“You really can’t do a study like this with U.S. data,” Aizer said. Previous American-based studies used survey data, which may “stymie” research efforts, she added. Data collected via surveys in the United States cannot account for a father who is not present at the time of birth if no name is provided, thus limiting domestic studies.
Understanding whether or not teenage motherhood impacts the child is important given the declining, though relatively high, rate of teen pregnancy in the United States.
“The real contribution of this paper is a lot better data. Work that has been done in the United States tends to use smaller samples (and) outcomes aren’t measured as well,” Levine said. He added that the use of the Norwegian data presents both strengths and weaknesses — though it allows for better, deeper analysis of the information available, it also raises concerns that the trends can not be extended to the American population.
“It’s an important and influential paper,” Levine concluded. It may set a foundation for future studies in the field, Aizer added.