Academic Outcomes for the Siblings of Teen Moms

When a teen mom brings a baby into the home, there might be effects on her younger siblings, but conducting research on these effects is difficult because families where teen birth occurs differ from other families in many important ways. In fact, in new research, Jennifer Heissel demonstrates that teen childbearing has negative spillovers to younger siblings, and that the test scores of both teen moms and their siblings are already on a downward trajectory for years before the teen mom actually gives birth.

Not accounting for this downward trajectory would overstate the effects of teen birth on the family. However, Heissel demonstrates that even after accounting for these pre-birth trends, the arrival of the baby negatively affects the siblings of teen moms.

To isolate the effects of a teen birth, Heissel compared children in families with teen childbearing to children from the same neighborhood with similar test score patterns, family test score patterns, and other characteristics, but where no teen childbearing occurs in the family. The siblings of teen moms have a substantial drop in performance relative to their matched comparison group, but only once the baby arrives in the home.

Importantly, teen moms’ test scores drop in the year of pregnancy, meaning that it is not some outside event that happens to cause both teen pregnancy and poor test scores. Instead, it appears the baby itself affects the siblings of teen moms, who also demonstrate more grade repetition, high school dropout, and juvenile justice system exposure following birth, relative to their otherwise similar matches. Academic effects are largest among girls, potentially due to increased time spent on childcare.

How can these findings inform our support for teens? According to Heissel, “This research points to the importance of family-wide support for teen moms. It also means that family spillover should be considered when calculating the benefits of programs that reduce teen pregnancy.”

Read the full study in the Journal of Human Resources: “Teen Fertility and Siblings’ Outcomes: Evidence of Family Spillovers Using Matched Samples” by Jennifer A. Heissel.

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Jennifer Heissel is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, and can be reached at jaheisse@nps.edu or @jenniheissel on Twitter. The views expressed in this paper do not reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

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