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Exploring the culture of despair

Faculty Associate Melissa Kearney and Philip B. Levine find that inequality trumps location in predicting early childbearing out of wedlock

Using individual-level data from the United States and a number of other developed countries, the role of income inequality in determining rates of early, non-marital childbearing among low socioeconomic status (SES) women was investigated. Findings suggest 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. Inequality itself, as opposed to other correlated geographic factors, drives this relationship. 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. Research proposes a model of economic “despair” that facilitates the interpretation of the 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.

Kearney, M. and Levine, P. (2011, NBER Working Paper #17157). "Income inequality and early non-marital childbearing: An economic exploration of the culture of despair."

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