The question of whether teen parenthood causes, or merely reflects, disadvantage has been the subject of hundreds of papers and decades of debate. The question of for whom teen parenthood may be harmful, on the other hand, has received rather less attention. Using a novel machine learning approach, we investigate potentially heterogeneous effects of teen motherhood on mental health outcomes from age 30 to 42. We find that effects of teen motherhood on later life mental health are not only small on average, they are also homogeneous – there are no identifiable sub-groups for whom teen motherhood appears to be detrimental. More broadly, many processes that create and maintain disadvantage are likely to be deeply heterogeneous – different people, living in different circumstances, will experience different consequences from the same life events or interventions. There are consequently strong imperatives for research to more systematically address for whom questions: doing so will deepen our understanding of the origins of disadvantage and enable effective targeting of support. We discuss the value of our method as a tool to support this objective.
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Martin O’Flaherty is a research fellow in the Life Course Centre, located in the Institute for Social Science Research. His research interests centre on the intersection of family, health, and disadvantage over the life course. He has contributed to the evaluation of nationally significant social policy, including the Try, Test, and Learn Fund. Martin’s current research investigates the nature, causes of, and solutions to, poverty and financial insecurity among children with disabilities and their families.