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Raise the Minimum Wage, Lower the Teen Birth Rate

New research finds paying low-income workers a bit more can produce an unanticipated public-health benefit.
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(Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

(Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Teenage motherhood can be problematic for a variety of reasons. Women who have children that early in life are at increased risk of abuse and depression — and giving birth to a premature infant.

How can the rate of such pregnancies be reduced? New research provides a surprising answer: Raise the minimum wage.

After crunching 11 years of quarterly, state-by-state data, Indiana University researcher Lindsey Rose Bullinger reports a $1 increase in the real minimum wage (that is, after accounting for inflation) reduces adolescent birth rates by about 2 percent.

That means a nationwide increase of $1 “would likely result in roughly 5,000 fewer adolescent births annually,” she writes in the American Journal of Public Health.

Bullinger examined data from 2003 to 2014, noting the adolescent birth rate (the number of births to women ages 15 to 19) for each three-month period in all 50 states. She also looked at the “binding real minimum wage” in each state, noting changes in state law and federal policy (for those states that don’t have their own wage floor).

She adjusted the figures for inflation, and controlled for such variables as a state’s level of welfare benefits, contraceptive availability, and the unemployment rate. (Increased levels of unemployment have long been linked to declining birth rates, presumably because some people postpone parenthood if their money is low.)

Her conclusion: “Higher minimum wages reduce adolescent birth rates, particularly among non-Hispanic white and Hispanic adolescents. Specifically, a $1 increase in the real minimum wage reduces adolescent birth rates by roughly 2 percent.”

“In 2014, 249,078 babies were born to adolescent mothers,” she writes. “A 2 percent reduction implies approximately 5,000 fewer infants born to (such women).”

Additional analysis of the data revealed “the minimum wage has a robust effect on adolescent birth rates independent of the unemployment rate,” she adds.

Bullinger isn’t certain why raising the minimum wage has this effect, but she offers some possible reasons. “Some argue that the high adolescent pregnancy rate in the United States (compared to other developed nations) is because of underlying economic inequality and immobility,” she writes. “Instead of investing in their economic futures, adolescents become pregnant because they do not have economic advancement opportunities, leaving few reasons to delay childbearing.”

“Higher wages might keep adolescents attached to the labor market — potentially increasing their future advancement opportunities — and thus provide a reason to delay childbearing,” she adds. “To the extent that employment remains stable, increases of more than $1 could prevent even more adolescent births.”

Proposals to increase the minimum wage aren’t likely to go anywhere in this Congress. But these results could convince state legislatures and city councils that such laws can produce unanticipated public-health benefits.

If you’re paid a decent hourly rate, the baby can wait.