Moving Policies Upstream to Mitigate the Social Determinants of Early Childbearing


Correspondence to:

Lee SmithBattle, Professor, School of Nursing, Saint Louis University, 3525 Caroline St., St. Louis, MO 631323. E-mail:


The teen birth rate in the United States is one of the highest in the post-industrialized world. International comparisons suggest that U.S. rates reflect high levels of social disadvantage and misguided policies that frame teen parenting as costly for mothers, children, and taxpayers. Studies that control for background factors that predispose teens to become parents highlight the social inequities that contribute to early childbearing and unfavorable maternal-child outcomes, regardless of maternal age. After reviewing these studies, federal policies that target and scrutinize teenage and single mothers are described and critiqued for the ways they disregard the social determinants of early childbearing and further the marginalization and social exclusion of low-income families. This review calls for public health nurses to challenge the ideological assumptions driving downstream policies and to advocate for comprehensive reforms that reduce the wide and growing inequities in education, income, and health among U.S. citizens. Building the public support and political will to move upstream will remain daunting in light of the pervasive stereotypes of teen parents and the ideological assumptions that early childbearing and poor maternal-child outcomes stem more from individual choices and lifestyles than from social inequities.