Delivering the commencement address last weekend at the evangelical Liberty University, Mitt Romney naturally stuck primarily to “family values” and religious themes. He did, however, make one economic observation that intersects with some fascinating new research. “For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child,” he said, “the probability that they will be poor is 2 percent. But if [all] those things are absent, 76 percent will be poor.”In the article I'm working on about minors' consent to adoption, I've been exploring why it is legislatures are so comfortable in allowing minors -- who aren't allowed to make legally-binding decisions like signing a cell-phone contract -- to relinquish their parental rights, which has to be one of the most consequential decisions one can make, given the importance we accord to parental rights.
These are striking numbers, but they raise the age-old question of correlation and causation. Does this mean that the representative high-school dropout would be doing much better had he stuck it out in school for a few more years? Or is it instead the case that the population of high-school dropouts is disproportionately composed of people who have attributes that lead to low earnings?
When it comes to early pregnancy, surprising new evidence indicates that Romney and most everyone else have it backward: Having a baby early does not hamper a young woman’s economic prospects, as Romney implies. Rather, young women choose to become mothers because their economic outlook is so objectively bleak.
* * *
Kearney and Levine used data on miscarriages to isolate the impact of giving birth from background characteristics that may contribute to a decision to give birth. When used this way as a statistical control, the negative consequences of teen childbirth appear to be small and short-lived. Young women who gave birth and young women who miscarried have similarly bleak economic outcomes. Similarly, when you compare teen mothers not to the general population but to their own sisters who aren’t teen moms “the differences are quite modest."
We talk about parenting as a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. We won't allow involuntary termination of parental rights by the government absent a showing of harm by clear and convincing evidence, a standard higher than the usual preponderance of the evidence standard we use in other civil actions. Yet we allow a minor, unassisted by parents, lawyers or counselors, to voluntarily relinquish these parental rights in the vast majority of American states. In only 15 states are there additional protections accorded to minors who are relinquishing parental rights -- compare that to the 36 states that require parental notice or consent when a minor makes a decision about abortion.
So why is that? I think the prominence of the idea that being a teen mom causes poverty plays a big part in the comfort level we have with separating young moms from their children. If being a teen mom is the cause of poverty, then it is obviously in the best interest of the teen to relinquish the child so that she can escape from poverty. Since her decision to relinquish is so clearly the only rational decision she could make, we don't need any additional protections to make sure she makes a reasoned and informed decision. We can explain her relinquishment as not only in her child's best interest, but as being in her best interest, too.
This research turns this thinking on its head. If poverty is not the inevitable consequence of teen parenting, then perhaps relinquishment isn't the only rational decision. And if it isn't the only rational decision, maybe we should consider altering the requirements for relinquishment when the mother is a minor. Maybe more than 15 states should consider requiring some grownup other than the adoption agency representative be in the room when a young mom is making that decision. Some options include requirements that minor moms be appointed independent legal counsel or a guardian ad litem, sign relinquishment papers only in the presence of a judge, notify the minors' parents, and/or require independent psychological counseling.
What do you think?