Family background strong predictor of unwed teen mothers’ financial success

January 16, 1997
Contact: Bernie DeGroat

ANN ARBOR—For unwed teen mothers, family background disadvantages are at least as strong predictors of low income and high poverty and welfare use as adults as is having a child out- of-wedlock, say University of Michigan researchers.

“Those who argue that ending out-of-wedlock teen births will substantially reduce poverty and dependency are likely wrong,” says Mary Corcoran, U-M professor of social work, public policy and political science. “If you compare the income of the average unmarried teen mom with that of other teen moms, there is a huge difference.

“But once we controlled for unmeasured background factors, the effects of teen-age out-of-wedlock births on adult income, poverty and welfare were much more modest.”

In their study of 60 pairs of African American sisters ages 25-35 in 1988, Corcoran and graduate student James Kunz compared the poverty and welfare use of women who had had an unmarried teen birth to that of their own sisters who had waited until marriage or their 20s to have a child.

They found that unmarried teen mothers fared only slightly worse economically as adults than did their own sisters who had avoided an out-of-wedlock teen-age birth.

The average adult family income for the sisters who were unwed teen mothers was about $12,500. About 35 percent of their adult years had been spent in poverty, with just over 71 percent receiving welfare as an adult.

The adult family income for the sisters who avoided an out- of-wedlock birth as teen-agers was about $16,500. Roughly 28 percent of their adult years had been spent in poverty, with nearly 70 percent receiving welfare during adulthood.

“A sister of a woman who had had an out-of-wedlock birth as a teen-ager fared very badly even when she, herself, avoided an out-of-wedlock teen-age birth,” Corcoran says. “Clearly, background disadvantages shared by sisters are at least as strong predictors of low income, high poverty and welfare use than is having an out-of-wedlock teen birth.”

There is a role, she adds, for policies aimed at reducing unmarried teen births, but prohibiting welfare payments to unwed teen mothers will do little to reduce adult poverty and welfare use.

“A more useful strategy is to identify the background disadvantages that lower young women?s economic prospects and to eliminate or counteract these disadvantages that prevent them from realizing the ‘American dream,'” Corcoran says.

The U-M study will be published in an upcoming issue of Social Science Review.

Mary Corcoran