It’s Tough Being A Teenaged Parent

by Sandra Cuneo

Statistics on the fate of teen mothers and the futures of children born to mothers aged 18 and under continue to be disappointing. Few teen mothers have a an adequate, structured support system to help them and their children – including an intact family or paternal assistance and love for their children -- and the negative consequences for these mothers and for their children are disturbing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, by 12th grade, over 60 percent of teens have had sex. Moreover, improvements in contraceptive use have leveled off and that the teen birth rate is on the rise for the first time in 15 years. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, one in three teenage girls becomes pregnant before the age of 20, 8 out of 10 of these pregnancies are unintended, and 80 percent of teen births are out-of wedlock. The teenage birth rate in the U.S. is the highest in the developed world.

The consequences for teen parents are stark: having a child before age 19 significantly reduces the probability of a teen girl’s finishing high school or going to college, and increases the probability of her reliance on public assistance programs such as TANF, food stamps and housing assistance. Teen fathers of teen mothers’ children earn less than adult fathers.

The consequences for the children of young teen mothers are also distressing: an Illinois study showed that teen mothers were 2.2 times more likely to have a child placed in foster care during the first five years after a birth. They were also twice as likely to have a reported case of abuse or neglect— almost one in ten children of young teen mothers were reported for abuse or neglect.

Children of teen mothers are also more likely to drop out of high school. Sons of adolescent mothers are 2.2 times more likely to spend time in prison -- nearly 14 percent of the sons of adolescent mothers have been in prison by their late-30s, compared to six percent of the sons of mothers aged 20-21. Daughters of adolescent mothers are more likely to become teen mothers themselves.

Teen childbearing in the United States costs taxpayers at least $9.1 billion, according to a 2006 report by Saul Hoffman, Ph.D. and published by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Most of these costs are the result of the negative consequences for the children of teen mothers, including increased costs for health care, foster care, and incarceration.

While fathers of children born to teen mothers need to provide support and love to their children, teen marriages are generally not the solution to teen pregnancy: they are particularly unstable and result in a significantly higher divorce rate than that of couples who marry when they are out of their teens. Girls who marry between conception and birth are less likely to return to school than those who don’t marry. Young relationships also involve high levels of violence. Teen marriages often result in a rapid second birth and worse economic and educational outcomes for the mother and her child. However, marrying before the birth of a child may also lead to greater paternal support, a residential father, and even if the couple divorces, greater financial support and greater paternal access to the child.

The solutions: Even though parents believe they have little influence on their children's decisions about sex, teens consistently report that their parents most influence these decisions. Parental caring, concern, closeness, presence in the home and shared activities clearly help reduce the risk of early sex and teen pregnancy. Of course, programs focusing on sex education and contraception can delay sexual activity, improve contraceptive use among sexually active teens, and prevent teen pregnancy. Even general programs that guide teens through adolescence and give them opportunities for growth and achievement as well as meaningful relationships with adults and older peers—community service programs, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, youth groups at religious organizations, for example— have been shown to decrease teen pregnancy.

Sadly, many of today’s teen-aged mothers have mothers who were teens when they gave birth, and so the cycle continues. Hopefully the next administration will address this cycle more effectively than the current one, which believes that abstinence and, failing that, marriage are the answers – and no sex education other than this -- and which has, to the extent possible, put these ineffective and damaging policies into effect.

Unfortunately, The Washington Post reports that as Governor, Sarah Palin cut state funding for transitional housing for pregnant teenage mothers, and the AP reports that both Senator McCain and Governor Palin have opposed funding to prevent teen pregnancy and for sex education. By contrast, Senator Barack Obama is a strong supporter of sex education, guaranteeing equity in contraceptive coverage and encouraging fathers to take responsibility for their children. In 2006, he voted for a bill that provided $100 million in funding to reduce teen pregnancy by increasing funding and access to family planning services, requiring equitable prescription coverage for contraceptives under health plans, and expanding teen pregnancy prevention and education programs concerning emergency contraceptives. In 2007, he introduced a bill that reduced barriers to responsible fatherhood, supported fathers trying to do the right thing while cracking down on men who avoid their parental responsibilities.

Teen pregnancy is disproportionately a problem of poor girls who have less access to education and jobs and aspirations – two-thirds of pregnant teen girls live at or below the poverty line. A search of John McCain’s campaign website reveals no anti-poverty agenda, and on the campaign trail, he has appeared uncomfortable discussing teen pregnancy while his campaign gleefully and incorrectly accuses Senator Obama of advocating sex education for kindergartners (the law was actually to protect children from sexual predators).

On the other hand, Senator Obama has a comprehensive antipoverty program that will alleviate the conditions that condemn teenaged mothers and their children to bleak futures and give them the skills and hope they need to postpone childbearing until adulthood.

Guest contributor Sandra Cuneo is an attorney and advocate for social and economic justice issues who lives in Los Angeles.