By now, almost every newspaper has printed an op-ed piece or column detailing the grim future that awaits teen moms — they are more likely to drop out of high school, end up in low-wage jobs and be poor. The statistics are overwhelming and many of these articles are adequately supported by data provided by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
These opinion-makers are not lying, but they are wrong. They imply that adolescent motherhood is the cause of these problems when in fact it is just the opposite. Poverty and school failure are the causes, not consequences, of young motherhood. Girls from low-income neighborhoods with poorly funded schools have little to lose by having a child early because their educational and occupational careers are already circumscribed by their disadvantaged locations.
In our recent study of teen moms in Connecticut, my colleague, Timothy Black from the University of Hartford, and I found that adolescent mothers were six times more likely to drop out of school than other students in Connecticut. Rarely, however, did these young mothers drop out of school because they were pregnant or had a child. More than half of those who dropped out did so before they became pregnant, and the others were already disengaged from school and doing poorly before their pregnancy. For them, early motherhood became the excuse, not the cause, for dropping out.
Most of these girls did not have the skills needed to complete high school. They had been retained a grade or two at some point in their short school careers, and they had not received adequate support to overcome learning disabilities, language deficiencies and the emotional stress that comes from living in violent neighborhoods and families.
One-third of the teen mothers in our study, however, never dropped out of school and many of these moms continue on to college. Like Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears, their pregnancies were a mere baby bump in their careers rather than a road block to success.
It is not that girls like Bristol and Jamie Lynn are "lucky" or the "exception" as many like to say, it is that these girls are often privileged by their white race and class status that afford them access to better schools.
In general, adolescent motherhood does not alter life trajectories — those on the path to dropping out of school drop out and those on the path to completing high school complete it. In fact, if young motherhood affects education at all, it is more likely to be positive because it motivates a young mother to finish school in order to get a better job and set a good example for her child.
Teen pregnancy incites people with political agendas on both the left and the right. The anti-pregnancy programs of the Clinton administration focused on family planning, sex education and removing barriers to contraception and abortion. Many of these plans were later undermined by the Bush administration that promoted abstinence-only programs, eroded abortion rights and limited access to contraception.
While the left and the right were fighting it out, the teen birth rate rose in 2006 for the first time in 15 years. Better programs might deter some young births, however, most pathways to adolescent motherhood do not begin with sex, but instead with poverty.
This nation needs an anti-poverty program more than a pregnancy prevention program. We need to allocate adequate funding for all schools so that they provide a superior education to every young person in this nation. The focus on teen pregnancy as the problem distracts us from the real problems in this country — inequality, poverty and under funded, inadequate schools that fail students and prime them for early parenthood.
Mary Patrice Erdmans is a professor of sociology at Central Connecticut State University and the author of "The Grasinski Girls." With Timothy Black of the University of Hartford, she is working on a book about adolescent mothers.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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