Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Getting Pregnant at 16 Might Be The Most Rational Course of Action for Poor Kids

Many people mock these girls for their own amusement,
but they are likely behaving perfectly rationally.

Gene Marks over at Forbes published a column a couple days ago entitled, "If I Was a Poor Black Kid" (it's useful to note that Marks describes himself as "a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background," and given that he's writing for Forbes, he's probably relatively wealthy, too). [Ninja edit: it looks like he fixed the grammar mistake in the title, as the title is now "If I Were a Poor Black Kid."]

The column is a thinly-veiled attack on the notion that any kind of special attention, programs, policies, or safety net is required in order to address poverty and income inequality in the U.S., arguing instead that every single person in the U.S.A. could succeed if only he or she'd work hard at it:
It takes brains.  It takes hard work.  It takes a little luck.  And a little help from others.  It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology.
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.
If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study.  I’d become expert at Google Scholar.
Is this easy?  No it’s not.  It’s hard.  It takes a special kind of kid to succeed.
The division between rich and poor is a national problem.  But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality.   It’s ignorance.  So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them.
Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped.
Wow ... just ... wow.

There are so many things wrong with this column, as many people have pointed out - everything from the grammar mistake in the original title to the stereotyping and generalization of poor blacks to the tacit condoning of post-Civil War racism in the U.S. to an utter lack of understanding of poverty in general, and more.

I, however, am going to focus on one particular problem with Marks's column - he utterly fails to take into account the fact that our surroundings/community/socialization affect our understanding of reality. I mean, seriously - the sentence, "If I was a poor black kid ... I’d become expert at Google Scholar," has to be one of the most ridiculous things Forbes has ever published.

Imagine the choice of a poor teenage girl deciding whether or not to have unprotected sex and possibly become pregnant, or to study hard, make good grades and stay in school.
Forget the unprotected sex itself, which we almost all find enticing.
The key is the pregnancy. For a 16 year-old girl regular unprotected sex will result in a full term pregnancy in the modern world with roughly probability one. There is little chance she will die in child birth. Late term miscarriages at her age are rare.
Now, just like any other parent the birth of that child will be the most important event in her life. And, the love of that child will be the most valuable thing she experiences. Some people say that looking back their career was more important than their children, but those people are few and far between.
So, if the girl has unprotected sex she gets right here, right now, the most important and valuable thing in life will happen immediately with PROBABILTY ONE.
We also need to point out that, when one is in poverty, the future is full of uncertainty, and so one's discount rate is (quite rationally) very high - that is, you are far more concerned about what's going to happen to you today or this week rather than in 3 years, because you literally have no idea what the future might hold (starvation? death? murder? homelessness? disease? etc.).

So, we have a poor teenage girl who, logically, has a very high discount rate and is considering whether to have a baby (and receive the most valuable thing in life) right now, versus taking a huge risk and waiting, during which time something might happen to prevent her from having a baby. And aside from the huge risk, you're also losing all those hours with your baby that you'll never get back. That is a very high cost to pay in order to take the gamble that school might pay off - particularly since school hasn't paid off for many (any?) of the people you know personally.

If anyone (yes, ANYONE) examines this situation from a purely rational, utility-maximizing perspective, it's difficult to come to the conclusion that the most rational thing to do is to do anything other than get pregnant at a young age - it makes sense to play it safe and take the sure thing (a baby) instead of waiting and gambling.

Smith also points out why poor teenage girls don't listen to older, "wiser" adults like me (or him):
Now, of course teachers, parents and helpful people like Marks will tell me to do otherwise. Should I believe them?
Not on your life.
By their own admission they want to see me “succeed.” That is, they benefit from my gamble. Yet, they incur none of the risks. They don’t lose time with their child. They don’t risk their fertility. They don’t experience the disutility of social climbing.
Heads they win. Tails I lose.
Listening to them would be nothing short of foolish.
And, so of course the teenage girl does not listen. Not because she is irrational, but because she is rational.
And how do people try to change her mind? Through irrational arguments or coercion. Parents might threaten her. Teachers might tell her noble lies - that she can do anything if she tries - or appeal to her emotions, telling her to believe in herself. No wonder she does what she wants and doesn't listen to them.

The problem is not that poor kids who get pregnant at 16 (or younger) are stupid or irrational - instead, many of them are probably looking around at the world around them and making the most rational choice that they can.

In pointing this out, I'm not trying to argue that this is a good thing - I'm simply pointing out that if you want to change people's decision-making processes, you often have to change the reality they inhabit. (Check our Megan McArdle's response to Marks's column for a detailed list of how poor kids' realities affect their decision-making.)

If Marks had been a poor black kid, I can say that it is highly likely that he would have made the same bad, rational decisions that many poor black kids make because he would have faced the same constraints that poor black kids face. It's not enough to hand them some books (or Google Scholar) and exhort them to "do their best." If you want to change their decision-making, you have to change their realities, which is a whole lot more difficult - and a whole lot more expensive - than directing them to the CliffsNotes website (which is one of Marks's "helpful" suggestions).

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