Friday, May 24, 2002

The Economics of Teen Parents-Instapundit had a provocative post on teen sex that got my mind rolling. A underlying but underadressed problem in this area is the mismatch between physical maturity and economic maturity. Kids have the physical equipment (and the accompanying desires) to have kids at 12 or so but aren't ready economically to support themselves until they are in their late teens or early 20s. In earlier eras, kids matured a bit later (due to less lighting and poorer nutrition) and were ready to lead productive lives a bit sooner (due to simpler jobs and less qualms about child labor) thus the gap between puberty and marriage was only a few years rather than a decade. Another feature of an older agrarian economy was the extended family. A young couple would be living on the family farm, with grandparents at the ready to look after kids. With built-in jobs and a support structure for teenaged parents, there were less barriers to marrying young. With little need for formal education, school could be finish by the early teens and a 15-year-old guy could be working side-by-side with other adults. There were also less expectations of fancy houses, cars and other consumer goods in an agrarian era, thus there was less desire for advanced education and the income that came with them. There was also the expectation of following in the family business, so career-counseling and upward mobility was largely a foreign concept. Modern 15-year-olds are stuck with paper routes, lawn-mowing and babysitting for income. A 15-year-old can't drive in most states and can't hold down a full time job, as they are required in most states to be in school full time until they are 16. A post-agrarian economy doesn't allow for most children to follow in their father's footsteps since the father doesn't typically own their own means of production. My dad was a high school social-studies teacher; I didn't inherit the family high school from my dad or automatically start teaching American Government and Economics when I got old enough. Kids have to chart their own course largely independent of their parents. Parents now have an extended adolescence to deal with as teenagers (a 20th century construct) learning a trade while still being under their financial wings until they are typically at least 18, or in their early twenties for the children of the inteligencia who go to college. The modern nuclear family doesn't easily adapt to a paradigm of taking a young couple under their wing, to support a son-in-law or daughter-in-law and their children while they get up to speed in their careers to a point where they can then fend for themselves. Teenagers aren't often mature enough to make good decisions regarding marriage, but so-called adults often aren't much better. Most teens aren't up to that challenge, but some are. Our culture doesn't have a good option for the teen who truly has found their life partner but isn't in an economic or legal position to get married. If proper safeguards are in effect, making sure that such decisions aren't being made hastily or unwisely, then loosening the laws against teen marriage might be a step in the right direction. Modern culture doesn't have an honorable outlet for teenage (under 18 at least) sexual behavior, as marriage and a full-time job are not feasible for the under-18 set. Teens are left with abstinence or extra-marital sex as their options, and our culture doesn't prize abstinence or marital fidelity. If a teenage couple is sexually active anyway and has a child they don't have the option of the shotgun marriage of years past, which helps integrate the family into society despite their "jumping the gun" sexually. She may be too young to marry the father and the father may have no legal way to support a family if he's in his mid teens himself. The legal proscriptions against child labor and youthful marriage, coupled with a generous welfare system, make single-parenting the norm in such situations. I don't have a good solution to the problem of that gap between physical and economic maturity for those people who aren't committed to be chaste until they are old enough to support a family. Here are some possible policy tweaks that would be Biblically sound and help cut down on the number of single teen moms. I want to make sure such changes are well-hack so as to avoid creating a lot dysfunctional teen marriages. That said, these policy changes might help.
(1) Loosening the child labor laws to allow kids in their mid teens to work more, especially if it is an apprenticeship-oriented program that is teaching them a trade. This would get teens who aren't heading for MBAs to economic maturity faster. (2) Lowering the marriage age a bit might be an option. I'd consider lowering the marriage age if all the parties concerned, including the parents of the couple, agree. If one of the in-laws is willing to support the couple while they get economically up to speed, it would be make teen marriages more supportable on a public-policy basis. (3) A cultural and legal shift back towards an extended family, thus allowing young couples to live with one set of in-laws, would be helpful. Many zoning laws and other legal constructs don't deal well with extended families. (4) Laws regarding parental support could be tweaked to better allow for support of a son or daughter-in-law. (5) Welfare laws could be tweaked to better encourage marriage. Currently, a married couple can't easily get welfare, thus the system is biased against unwed parents getting married.
These tweaks aren't the answer. More self-control is the better answer, but we do need to look at our biases against teen marriage and see if some of these tweaks might not be a bad idea. Let the blogfire begin. {Update5/26 12:15AM-Incoming from Instapundit. I have some followup on the fallout here]

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