How Focusing on Teen Pregnancy as a Personal Moral Failing Deepens Social Inequality

In the 1980s and 1990s, concerns about teen pregnancy voiced by policymakers and pundits helped garner support for welfare reform – as the public reached a consensus that teen pregnancy contributes to poverty and was encouraged by overly lenient welfare programs. Resulting welfare changes in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 imposed strict lifetime limits on the number of months a poor family can receive assistance while making it harder for impoverished families to qualify and remain eligible for aid. This policy was supposed to reduce welfare dependency by promoting work, reducing out-of-wedlock and adolescent pregnancies, and promoting marriage.

However, studies show that the age at which a person gives birth is not causally related to poverty or negative health outcomes for the parent or child. Teen pregnancy is a symptom of poverty, rather than its cause. While the 1996 law is credited with reducing the welfare rolls, experts argue that it has also increased the number of Americans living in at the deepest level of poverty. Declines in adolescent pregnancy cannot be attributed to that policy shift. If anything, welfare reform may have increased the rate of adolescent pregnancies among welfare recipients.

Welfare Reform and Shifting Perspectives on Teen Pregnancy

After the 1996 passage of welfare reform, conversations about teen pregnancy that had previously included attention to urban conditions, unemployment, inadequate health care, and the shortcomings of public education turned to an almost-exclusive focus on adolescent sex and the personal and moral failings it supposedly represents. My research examines political discourse, popular culture, and national and local efforts to prevent teen pregnancies to better understand why teen sex and childbearing remain central to popular culture and policy debates, despite research showing that teen pregnancy is a symptom of poverty and not a cause. I further examine why there has not been a reevaluation of welfare policy despite the documented shortfalls of earlier reforms. And I also probe how these two phenomena may be related.

Moral arguments have featured prominently in debate about adolescent sex since the 1970s, when teen pregnancy was first named as a special problem. Before the 1996 welfare legislation, however, the moral aspect was one of many. Only since then have the personal moral responsibilities of teen parents become the only lens through which responses are discussed.

Who Shapes Images of Teen Pregnancy and Why?

Some of the same voices that narrowed the discussion of welfare reform in the 1990s still shape discussions today. In 1996, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (recently renamed Power to Decide) was founded as a counterpart to welfare reform. Power to Decide remains influential and is guided by leaders who helped popularize the overly-narrow view that teen pregnancy is largely a moral issue. In addition to helping enact welfare reform, these politicians and social scientists changed the debate about teen pregnancy. But to what end?

By studying shifts in public portrayals of teen pregnancy as a problem in national debates and in the activities, social media output, and television contributions of Power to Decide, I discovered that the moralized focus has specific effects:

  • It removes teen pregnancy from the context of welfare. Whereas the issue was almost exclusively part of political debates about the welfare system in the 1980s and 1990s, in subsequent decades it is discussed primarily within debates about sex education and abortion.
  • It paints the issue as an equal-opportunity problem. No longer is teen pregnancy represented as primarily plaguing Black and Latina communities. In shows like 16 and Pregnant, which has a mostly white cast, as well as in online games with multicultural characters and public service announcements with high-profile celebrities such as Bristol Palin, teen pregnancy is now publicly portrayed as equally affecting all races and classes.
  • It depicts burdens of teen pregnancy as primarily physical and emotional. Stress on the pains of childbirth and the strains of parenthood for young relationships displaces earlier discussions of the potential impacts of teen pregnancy on a young person’s economic self-sufficiency and educational attainment.

Such shifts in public discussion fail to account for race, class, and the importance of social institutions in shaping the rate and experience of adolescent pregnancy. If U.S. systems of education, welfare, taxation, criminal justice, and health care are not portrayed as contributing to this problem, they will be left out of proposed solutions. The current focus on personal morality avoids addressing any societal roots or remedies. Instead, politicians and advocates informed by the rhetoric of the 1996 welfare reform offer attractively packaged information about sex and morality – often safely conveyed on the Internet – as their response to teen pregnancy. Questions of racism, inequality, and the inadequacies of the social safety net do not arise. In effect, public framings of teen pregnancy as a personal and moral problem blink at systematic racial disparities and leave low-income Americans vulnerable as inequalities widen.

Better Approaches

Focusing on teen pregnancy as a moral failing distracts citizens, policymakers, and advocates from addressing the real problems in young people’s lives. Instead, the priorities should be:

  • Reducing discrimination against pregnant young women and young parents in schools.
  • Providing comprehensive sex education and reproductive health care to all young people, not in the name of stigmatizing certain pregnancies but to equip adolescents with the knowledge and tools to make informed choices about sex and reproduction.
  • Replacing earlier failed welfare programs with economically redistributive measures to help people in difficult life circumstances – and boost the resources of marginalized communities.

Increasing Minimum Wage Would Reduce Teen Pregnancies

A $1 increase in the minimum wage would likely reduce the U.S. adolescent birth rate by about 2 percent, according to new Indiana University research.

That would mean about 5,000 fewer births annually, and the number could go higher if the minimum wage increase climbed over $1, according to Lindsey Rose Bullinger, the study author and an associate instructor and doctoral student at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

“Higher wages can give teens a reason to keep working,” Bullinger said. “Their advancement opportunities would improve, and they’d have good reason to delay childbearing or substitute work for leisure.”

Many studies have looked at the impact of a minimum wage hike on the economy, but few have analyzed the public health implications. It is a critical issue because the U.S. has the highest adolescent birth rate among developed countries.

Infants of teen mothers generally have worse birth outcomes than children of older mothers. Additionally, parenthood at an early age costs the public more than $9 billion annually because of expenses related to health care, foster care and foregone tax revenue from parents who leave the labor force.

“We know from previous research that an increase in the minimum wage is good for the health of the worker,” Bullinger said. “They live longer, have lower body mass indexes and are less likely to abuse children, among other benefits. This study adds to those findings by showing that higher pay means fewer births to adolescent parents. This is especially true for non-Hispanic white and Hispanic adolescents because they are more likely to be affected by minimum wage increases.”

The federal minimum wage is $7.25, but some cities and states have higher rates, including San Francisco and Seattle, where $15 is the hourly minimum. So increases of more than $1 are not unrealistic, which could avert even more teen births. Bullinger conducted a sophisticated statistical analysis of the differences in birth rates from state to state.

Bullinger’s complete findings were published in the peer-reviewed article “The Effect of Minimum Wages on Adolescent Fertility: A Nationwide Analysis,” published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care Epidemic

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Possibly one of the few things more challenging than being a teenage parent is being a teenage parent in foster care.  While the adverse effects of teen pregnancy have been well studied, researchers and social service providers are only recently coming to terms with the growing epidemic of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care.

According to a 2009 Chapin Hall Study  adolescents in foster care are at a significantly higher risk for pregnancy than the general adolescent population:

  • At ages 17 and 18, one third or 33% of young women in foster care were pregnant or parenting  
  • By age 19, more than half or 51 % of young women currently or formerly in foster care were pregnant or parenting, and nearly half of those young women had more than one child
  • 60% of 21-year-old former foster males report impregnating a female partner as compared to 28 % of the general population

To be clear, foster youth are children who have been removed from their families and are in the legal custody of the state. Another way to think of this is, the government is their parents. If that is the reality, than foster youth are basically “our children” and we are doing a pretty shabby job at being their parents.

What is possibly even more troubling than a 50% pregnancy rate is the experiences of these young parents while in foster care:

  • 1 in 5 pregnant teens in foster care received NO prenatal care
  • 22% of teen foster care mothers were investigated for child maltreatment
    (this is way above the 12% of teenage parent in general)
  • 11% of teen foster care mothers had their children removed from their custody 
  • 44% of foster care mothers graduated from high school; 27% for parenting foster fathers
  • Having a child while in foster care was the largest predictor of homelessness after exiting care

Teen pregnancy and parenting is only one of the indicators of poor foster care outcomes. Very few programs and policies address the needs of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care or work to prevent initial or repeat pregnancy.  Other critical foster care outcomes include a significant  increase in the risk of homelessness, incarceration, poor educational attainment, and poverty for foster youth ages 14-18 . But there is something uniquely disturbing about the fact that the children of foster youth are at-risk for entering foster care while their parents are still in foster care.

Though I am in no way suggesting that the U.S. do away with child protective services or foster care, circumstances such as these do beg the question, “Is the government any better at being a parent than the very caregivers these children are removed from?” This is a scary question to ask, but one that social workers must constantly be appraising.  The answer is not “no” but it is not a resounding “yes” either.

By definition, children in foster care come into care from troubled circumstances, putting them at greater risk for a number of poor outcomes. But we must make a guarantee to these children that the new environments we provide for them will make them better off than the environments we took them from. We must transition child welfare into a place where safety and permanency are not our only goals.  Well-being and a better future are essential.

As a child welfare systems change analyst, I applaud the tireless work of child welfare workers and administrations and recognize it is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, jobs to do. There are so many forces beyond our control and endless administrative hurdles to overcome. But we must still do better. We have to do better or what is the point of the entire system?

References & Resources: 

Boonstra, H.D. (2011). Teen pregnancy among young women in foster care: A primer. Guttermacher Policy Review, 14 (11) pp.8-19.

Center for the Study of Social Policy: Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care

Children’s Bureau, Administration of Children, Youth, and Families. The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2012 as of July 2013.

Children’s Defense Fund. (2010). Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act Summary.

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