US: Maternity for Teens (3/99)

With nearly 500,000 teenagers giving birth nationwide each year, most are unmarried and not ready for the emotional, psychological, and financial challenges of parenting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Under federal welfare reform, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the bulk of control over federal assistance for such families has been given to the states, with incentives such as bonuses for reducing teen, out-of-wedlock births, estimated at 76 percent of all teen births in 1994, compared to 15 percent in 1960.

Social services professionals have voiced their concern that by giving states considerable flexibility in designing programs for teens, states may differ substantially in their long-term priorities toward aiding teens and their children. Punitive priorities – such as an emphasis on enforcing statutory rape laws or no benefits for additional children vs. education on pregnancy prevention and sexual abuse, and prenatal care for expectant mothers – could adversely affect certain ethnic groups more than others in the long term.

While birth rates for teens overall have dropped significantly over the past 30 years, rates for the Hispanic community have remained about the same. The rate for all ethnic groups combined dropped from 96.3 per 1000 women aged 15-19 years in 1957 to about 54.7 in 1996. The greatest reduction rate was in the African American community, where it fell to the lowest rate ever recorded – 91.7 per 1000 – leaving the Hispanic community with the highest birth rate among teens of all ethnic groups, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The Hispanic birth rate hovered between 100 to 112 per 1000 from 1990 to 1996.

"There isn’t enough discussion about these issues in our community and it’s killing us," says Edna Garcia (D-Bridgeport), Connecticut’s first female Puerto Rican state senator. "There’s a double standard culturally, a Ômachismo’ that’s embraced, but when teen girls become pregnant, they are often thrown out of the home."

The Census Bureau reports that in 1996, over one-third of all Hispanics are under the age of 18 and one-fourth of all Hispanic families live below the poverty level. In the last three decades, the percentage of unmarried teenage mothers has more than tripled to 84 percent. Among older teenage mothers, the figure for unmarried teens was 71 percent – nearly eight times that of 1950 (9 percent). According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the trends are paralleled by lower educational attainment rates for teen parents, lower infant birth weights, greater medical care costs, and greater risks rates for abuse and neglect of the children.

Only one-third of teen mothers complete high school while nearly 80 percent of the unmarried mothers end up on welfare. A national study by the Urban Institute Press found that sons of adolescent mothers are 2.7 times more likely to be incarcerated than sons of mothers in their twenties.

The birth rate for teen mothers seems to have an proportionate correlation to educational attainment when viewed by ethnicity: the higher the birth rate among teens, the lower the educational attainment level. In 1997, 55 percent of Hispanics 25 years and older had a high school degree; 10 percent had a bachelor’s degree, according to the Census Bureau. More than 42 percent of the Asian and Pacific Islander population aged 25 and over were college graduates; for Whites, it was 25 percent and for African Americans, 13 percent. Asians had the lowest teen birth rates, about 28 in 1000 in 1996.

"Even though many teen parents do well, we haven’t set up a system to support them as a society," says Tamara Kreinin, director of state and local affairs at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. All services on the issue of teen pregnancy have become more fragmented after welfare reform, she observes, particularly as each state designs its own programs to match their priorities.

One example of the emerging gap between punitive and supportive policy-making is being demonstrated through the issue of birth rates for adolescents aged 11-14. Studies have shown that in about 66 to 75 percent of these cases, the teen has a history of being sexually abused and that there’s a greater difference between the male’s age and the female’s, according to Kreinin. The younger a sexually experienced teenaged girl is, the more likely she is to have had unwanted or non-voluntary sex. Close to four in 10 girls who had first intercourse at 13 or 14 reported it was either non-voluntary or unwanted.

"Some states for example, have chosen to focus on punitive steps with the passage or stricter enforcement of statutory rape laws, whereas I would contend that’s not where we need to focus our energy," says Kreinin. "We need to focus on education about the effects of sexual abuse, and educate young men and women in a supportive way." Hispanic and Black women, for example, were less likely than White women to use contraception during their first reported premarital sexual intercourse (32 percent and 58 percent, versus 70 percent).

Another example is the variance between Connecticut’s priorities for teen mothers and that of its neighbor, Massachusetts. The Greater Bridgeport Adolescent Pregnancy Program – which operates in an area where over half of the state’s minorities reside and 18 percent of all births are to teens in minority neighborhoods – reports that an astonishing 60.4 percent of Connecticut inmates are the children of teen parents. Yet, Connecticut, with the nation’s highest per capita income, has one of the shortest welfare aid time limits – 21 months.

And although federal law exempts the time-limit to pregnant teens and teen parents who stay in school and live with family or in a supervised environment, Congress has yet to provide federal money for minor parents who cannot live at home due to physical or sexual abuse. That puts the burden on states to provide funding for "second-chance homes" for abused teen parents.

Connecticut, with 3600 teen pregnancies annually, has only one state-funded home for teens. Massachusetts, with 4000 teen pregnancies per fiscal year, has 22 programs funded by the state, serving 110 teens who cannot live at home. Only five states – Maryland, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Michigan – provide state funds to operate group homes for mothers with young children.

Garcia has recently submitted a bill to the state legislature for funding second-chance homes which would have medical, psychological, and support services. The city of Bridgeport has donated a building, which requires renovations, and a $250,000 operating budget to care for six teens and their infants at a time, serving up to 30 a year. The building, originally scheduled to open in January, is still boarded up from lack of funds.

"There isn’t enough discussion about these issues in our community and it’s killing us," Garcia says. A second-generation teen mother of two by age 16, Garcia fled a violent relationship with a man 10 years older than her. Although welfare was "humiliating," she acknowledges that it was the support she needed to get through years of college while she worked and raised her children. She eventually earned a master’s degree and has been teaching in the Bridgeport school system.

"I named this program Mi Casa (My Home)," she says, "because it is the home I did not have, a place for young girls like myself to live so they will not be living alone, in the streets or in a bad situation."

Anna Manzo is a Connecticut-based writer.