According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), a nonprofit agency that focuses on sexual and reproductive health research, policy analysis, and public education, teenage pregnancy has adverse consequences for the parents, the child, and society. Pregnant teens are less likely to complete high school and attend college than teenagers who avoid pregnancy. Many teenage parents live below the poverty level and rely on welfare. The children of teenage parents receive inadequate medical care, have more problems in school, and spend more time in prison than children of adult parents. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (NCPTP) claims that teenage childbearing costs society about $6.9 billion annually; this estimate includes welfare and food stamp benefits, medical care expenses, lost tax revenue (teenage childbearing affects the parents’ work patterns), incarceration expenses, and foster care. In an effort to reduce teenage pregnancy and the problems associated with it, policymakers have recently focused on what causes the widespread poverty and welfare dependence that teen moms experience and have attempted to devise solutions to these problems.
Some social critics argue that because pregnancy limits a teenager’s opportunities for education and well-paying jobs, many are forced to accept welfare to support themselves and their children. Only 64 percent of teen moms graduate from high school or earn a general education diploma within two years after they would have graduated compared with 94 percent of teenage girls who do not give birth. This lack of education increases the risk of poverty and welfare dependence by severely restricting a young parent’s opportunity for a lucrative job and financial independence. According to Kids Count, a project by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “The failure to go further in school can limit the mother’s employment options and increase the likelihood that she and her family will be poor. And the roughly one-fifth of adolescent moms who have more than one child are even more economically vulnerable. They might further delay finishing high school, putting them at greater risk of being slotted into low-wage jobs or facing prolonged unemployment, poverty, and welfare.” According to Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization, nearly 80 percent of teen moms eventually go on welfare, and 55 percent of all mothers on welfare were teenagers at the time their first child was born.
The absence of many teenage fathers further increases a young mother’s risk of poverty and welfare dependence. The teenage marriage rate has declined in recent decades, leaving many young mothers without a husband’s financial support. Although the teenage pregnancy rate in the 1950s and 1960s was higher than today, the teenage marriage rate was also higher; in 1960 the percentage of unmarried teenage births was 15 percent, compared with 75 percent today. Many social commentators argue that the decline in teenage marriage has contributed to the rise in poverty and welfare dependence of single mothers. According to scholar Patrick F. Fagan, “The major change in teen pregnancy is not the numbers or rates of teen pregnancy, but the massive abandonment of marriage. . . . Having a baby out of wedlock is the major way to derail progress towards a future stable family life with its attendant more comfortable domestic economy.” Fagan and others maintain that without the bonds of marriage to hold couples together, many young fathers abandon young mothers and their children to poverty and welfare dependence.
Other social critics argue that poverty and adverse life circumstances foster teenage pregnancy, rather than result from it. Data from the American Academy of Pediatrics reveal that about 83 percent of adolescents who give birth and 61 percent who have abortions come from poor or lowincome families. According to professor Michael A. Carrera,
Unfortunately, many teen males and females do not have the good fortune of living in [stable family] situations and do not see much of a future for themselves. Most young people see little employment opportunity around them and will probably face a life of low economic status, ever-present racism, and inadequate opportunities for quality education. . . . Under such conditions, it is no wonder that some young people, instead of becoming industrious and hopeful, become sexually intimate for a short-term sense of comfort, and ultimately become profoundly fatalistic.
These teenagers perceive few opportunities to achieve better circumstances than they were raised in; therefore, they are less inspired to avoid pregnancy and childbearing than teens from more affluent backgrounds.
As a possible solution to the social and economic costs of welfare-dependent teenage mothers, in 1996 Congress passed the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” otherwise known as the welfare reform bill. One intention of the bill was to reduce the number of teenage and out-of-wedlock pregnancies by making benefits more difficult for teenage parents to obtain. The law forbids states from using federal funds to provide assistance to unmarried parents under the age of eighteen who have a child that is at least twelve weeks old unless the parents have completed high school or are enrolled in school or training programs. In addition, in order to receive benefits, teenage parents under the age of eighteen must live with a parent or in another adult-supervised setting, which states may assist teenage parents in locating. States are also given the power to deny welfare benefits to unmarried teenage parents under the age of eighteen. Supporters of welfare reform hope that these provisions, along with pregnancy prevention education programs, can decrease the number of teenage pregnancies and reduce the resulting burden on taxpayers.
Critics of the welfare bill argue that many of its provisions will result in increased poverty among young mothers and children who rely on welfare as their primary source of income. According to the AGI, most of the provisions “rely on disincentives—the threat of punitive measures down the line—to discourage teenage childbearing.” This strategy assumes that young women intentionally get pregnant in order to receive welfare checks. However, statistics from the AGI suggest that 85 percent of teenage pregnancies are unintentional. The AGI concludes that these components of welfare reform
are targeted largely at the very small proportion of young women who are likely to go on public assistance immediately upon the birth of their baby. Yet, very often there is a lag—sometimes of several years—between the time most teenagers who eventually become welfare-dependent give birth and when they actually begin to receive [welfare] benefits. These women, presumably, are not expecting to go on welfare when they have a child and therefore are unlikely to change their behavior as a result of restrictions on welfare eligibility related to childbearing.
The AGI and others maintain that addressing the causes of teenage pregnancy, such as poverty and unfavorable life circumstances, will more effectively reduce the rate of teenage parenting and its accompanying problems.
Supporters of the 1996 welfare reform bill hope that it can defray some of the social costs of teenage pregnancy. Others maintain that society will benefit most from solving the social and economic factors that contribute to teenage pregnancy. Teenage Pregnancy: Opposing Viewpoints presents these and other issues in the following chapters: Is Teenage Pregnancy a Serious Problem? What Factors Contribute to Teenage Pregnancy? What Options Are Available to Pregnant Teenagers? How Can Teenage Pregnancy Be Reduced? Examination of these arguments should give readers a thorough understanding of the problems surrounding teenage pregnancy.