The Inept Politics of Teenage Pregnancy

David Blankenhorn, Newsday, 1/30/1987

Unwed teenage parents, surely one of our most intractable social dilemmas, have become the focus of national attention. A recent Harris poll finds that over 80 percent of Americans regard teen pregnancies as "a serious national problem" requiring new efforts by schools, parents and the media.

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Subject: Family

More by: David Blankenhorn

Unwed teenage parents, surely one of our most intractable social dilemmas, have become the focus of national attention. A recent Harris poll finds that over 80 percent of Americans regard teen pregnancies as "a serious national problem" requiring new efforts by schools, parents and the media.

In the past year, a spirited debate has erupted over the wisdom of allowing school-based health clinics to prescribe or dispense contraceptives to teenagers. Even presidential aspirants, looking to 1988, are staking claims to the issue, often as part of a broader "pro-family" program.

The facts are simple enough. About 1 million teenagers become pregnant each year, which results, after abortions and miscarriages, in about 500,000 births. Contrary to what many believe, the rate of teenage childbearing has been declining for years due to contraception, abortion and delays in marriage. It is much lower today than it was in 1960, both proportionately and absolutely.

The crux of today’s crisis is unwed parenthood. The percentage of teenage mothers who are unmarried has more than tripled over the past 25 years, from 15 percent in 1960 to 56 percent in 1984. Four out of 10 white teen mothers are unwed, compared to less than one in 10 in 1960. Today nine out of 10 black teen mothers are unmarried, up from four in 10 in 1960. Indeed, while minority teens comprise only 27 percent of the adolescent population, they account for nearly 60 percent of all births to unwed teens.

These statistics define the heart of the issue. All the social science evidence available points to an inextricable link between unwed parenthood and a host of evils: poverty, infant mortality, joblessness, long-term welfare dependency, school failure, crime and family breakdown. In 1985, births to teenage mothers cost the taxpayers over $16 billion in welfare outlays alone. The complete costs — the individual and social costs of broken lives — cannot, of course, be calculated.

The National Research Council’s recently released study, Risking the Future, illustrates the liberals’ unfortunate approach to this crisis. Their central policy recommendation is to increase the use and availability of contraceptives, especially through school-based clinics. Contraceptive services, they urge, should be inexpensive or free, should be advertised to teens through the media and should not require parental consent. In addition, they endorse a wide range of services and programs — from sex education to health care — for teenage mothers and their children.

The flaw in this approach is that it reduces the problem of unwed parenthood to one of contraceptive ignorance. But neither common sense nor the report&rsquos own evidence support such a notion.

About 85 percent of sexually active teenagers report using contraceptives, though some are irregular users. Yet what mainly determines teenagers’ sexual behavior is not what they know about birth control, but what their world is like and what they believe about themselves. Do they come from strong, intact families? Do they do well in school? Do they feel good about themselves? Do they believe that unwed parenthood is morally wrong? Do they believe the future holds opportunity for them?

The determinant questions, in short, are not about the mechanics of contraception, but about opportunity, self-perception and values. To avoid unwed parenthood, teenagers must have more than the means; they must also have the motive. No strategy that avoids these facts will work.

Conservatives usually choose different issues to dodge. While they are eager to frame the problem of unwed parenthood in moral terms, their acute myopia regarding its social sources can only be understood as the product of an ideology that is impervious to evidence. This ideology holds that government never solves social problems, but always makes them worse.

Thus a recently released White House report on the family blames unwed parenthood and family breakdown on "an anti-family agenda" that pursues "a government solution to every problem government caused in the first place."

This is a dangerous fantasy, which does violence not only to social reality but to the conservatives’ own campaign for moral values. For by pretending that public policy can do nothing about the social conditions that foster unwed parenthood, the conservatives expose their moral arguments to charges of hypocrisy.

Indeed, moral exhortation without public policies to expand opportunity will not solve the unwed parenthood crisis and may, as conservatives like to say, make it worse.

What will work? Here are a few ideas that suggest the outlines of a fresh, bipartisan approach.

Public policies should foster stronger families and greater sexual responsibility. One idea, now being tried in Wisconsin, is to require teenage fathers, whether married or not, to assume some financial responsibility for their children. These stricter child support payments not only help mothers and children, but also create strong reasons for boys not to make babies before they are ready to become fathers.

Any serious effort to combat unwed parenthood must include an employment strategy, especially for poor and minority youth, for whom joblessness and unwed parenthood are closely intertwined. One place to start is the welfare system. Welfare payments, whenever possible, should be replaced with guaranteed jobs and child care. Initially such a program would be more costly than the current system, but in the long run it would offer recipients a genuine ladder out of poverty. Moreover, it would curtail the subsidies for unwed parenthood that plague the current system, replacing them with the same incentives for family formation that operate in the larger society.

The evidence is also clear that better education and stronger schools would reduce unwed parenthood. A Children’s Defense Fund study finds that girls with poor academic skills are five times more likely to become mothers before age 16 than are girls with average skills. Numerous initiatives, some involving partnerships between the public and private sectors, now offer at-risk teenagers better job skills, academic remediation and work experience leading to full-time jobs.

Better education also means teaching values. For example, sex education should not only do a better and earlier job of imparting biological knowledge, but should be combined with what some school curricula now call "family-life education," designed to reinforce family values, encourage sexual responsibility and promote communication between students and their parents.

These ideas suggest an approach that is neither liberal nor conservative, Republican nor Democratic. They seek to address the causes, not just the symptoms, of unwed parenthood. They reflect the belief that strong values and greater opportunities can work together, not against one another in some false political antagonism. Perhaps, as we look ahead to the post-Reagan era of social policy, it is a program whose time has come.

This article originally appeared here.

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