Income Inequality and Early Non-Marital Childbearing: An Economic Exploration of the "Culture of Despair"

60 Pages Posted: 25 Jun 2011 Last revised: 30 Jun 2011

See all articles by Melissa S. Kearney

Melissa S. Kearney

University of Maryland - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Phillip B. Levine

Wellesley College; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: June 2011

Abstract

Using individual-level data from the United States and a number of other developed countries, we empirically investigate the role of income inequality in determining rates of early, non-marital childbearing among low socioeconomic status (SES) women. We present robust evidence that low SES women are more likely to give birth at a young age and outside of marriage when they live in more unequal places, all else held constant. Our results suggest that inequality itself, as opposed to other correlated geographic factors, drives this relationship. We calculate that differences in the level of inequality are able to explain a sizeable share of the geographic variation in teen fertility rates both across U.S. states and across developed countries. We propose a model of economic "despair" that facilitates the interpretation of our results. It reinterprets the sociological and ethnographic literature that emphasizes the role of economic marginalization and hopelessness into a parsimonious framework that captures the concept of "despair" with an individual's perception of economic success. Our empirical results are consistent with the idea that income inequality heightens a sense of economic despair among those at the bottom of the distribution.

Suggested Citation

Kearney, Melissa S. and Levine, Phillip B., Income Inequality and Early Non-Marital Childbearing: An Economic Exploration of the "Culture of Despair" (June 2011). NBER Working Paper No. w17157. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1871564

Melissa S. Kearney (Contact Author)

University of Maryland - Department of Economics ( email )

College Park, MD 20742
United States

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Phillip B. Levine

Wellesley College ( email )

106 Central Street
Wellesley, MA 02181
United States
781-283-2162 (Phone)
781-283-2177 (Fax)

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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