by Jacqueline Jones
Teenage childbearing is associated with adverse consequences for young mothers and their children, many of which can be attributed to the economically and socially disadvantaged situations in which most adolescent mothers live before becoming pregnant. Often, the disadvantaged backgrounds of young women contribute to poor school performance, weak social skills and low earnings potential, and also increase the likelihood that a young woman will become pregnant as a teen.
Teenage childbearing tends to exacerbate the problems of poverty and family instability many young women already face. Early childbearing contributes to lower levels of educational attainment for the adolescent mother and her child, high rates of single parenthood, larger family sizes and increased reliance on public assistance.
Connections like these too often are overlooked in efforts to prevent teen pregnancy. A deeper examination of the external influences on adolescents who become involved in a pregnancy is required in order to fully comprehend and effectively respond to the complexity of teen pregnancy.
Poverty is the factor most strongly related to teen pregnancy. State comparisons show that states with higher poverty rates also have higher proportions of non-marital births to adolescents (Moore 1995). In addition, some researchers have suggested that high poverty rates in the United States account for the fact that US teen birth rates are the highest of any industrialized nation (MacFarlane 1997; Males 1994).
High rates of youth poverty precede high rates of teenage childbearing. Teens residing in communities with high rates of poverty, welfare use, and single-mother households are at higher risk for early pregnancy. Teen parents are therefore disproportionately concentrated in poor communities characterized by inferior housing, high crime, poor schools and limited health services (Maynard 1996; Wilson 1996).
Success in School
Recent research examining the relationship between educational attainment and teenage pregnancy has addressed background factors like individual, family, and neighborhood characteristics to better explain the relationship. These studies have confirmed that teenage pregnancy adversely affects level of educational attainment. However, it has been found that young women and men often drop out of high school before they become parents, and that school attendance and achievement before conception are the best predictors of school attendance and achievement after delivery of the child (Stevens-Simon 1995).
In terms of educational achievement, dropping out, rather than having a baby, appears to be the key factor that sets adolescent mothers behind their peers. Adolescent mothers who stay in school are almost as likely to graduate (73%) as women who do not become mothers while in high school (77%) (The Alan Guttmacher Institute 1994).
Failure to complete high school prevents young mothers from going on to post-secondary education and from participating in many vocational training programs (Stevens-Simon 1995). Limited educational achievement combined with low basic skills and limited job experience means fewer employment opportunities and lower wages for teenage mothers (Maynard 1996; Zill and Nord 1994). In addition, teenage mothers have more children on average and are less likely to be married than women who delay childbearing. As a result, they must stretch their limited incomes to support more children (The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy 1997).
Over the last two decades, the US economy has lost most of its low-skill, high-paying manufacturing jobs, restricting career opportunities for low-income youths, the population most likely to be involved in early pregnancies (Wilson 1996; Males 1994). As the qualifications for good jobs rise, teenage mothers who fail to finish school have more difficulty finding gainful employment (The Alan Guttmacher Institute 1994).
The U.S. Congress is Finally Recognizing the Impact of Teen Pregnancy and how to handle it in a comprehensive way. The Pregnant and Parenting Students Access to Education Act (H.R. 2617) is a new proposed law that responds to the high school dropout crisis in our nation. Providing educational and related life supports for pregnant and parenting students, such as would be available under H.R. 2617, can go a long way toward improving school climate for young parents and increasing their high school graduation rates.
What it Means To Delaware
Delaware is already fortunate to have a statewide education alternative for pregnant and parenting teens that embraces the comprehensive approach toward their success. For 42 years, the Delaware Adolescent Program, Inc. has been providing academics, healthcare and maternal health education, childcare support and social service support to our most challenged pregnant teens. This wraparound approach has resulted in outstanding high school graduation rates, elevated infant health statistics and better prepared parents.
With the passage of The Pregnant and Parenting Students Access to Education Act, Delaware’s longstanding work will finally have federal backing and credibility for our pregnant teen population.
Adolescent pregnancy results in significant challenges for the teen mother, father and their child. It is important to understand the connections between issues like poverty, welfare reliance, low educational achievement and employment options in the life of an adolescent parent. These factors are often part of the lives of young women before they have a child and are further compounded by the birth of a child. Understanding these connections can provide insight when developing teen pregnancy prevention programs or when seeking out better ways to support teen parents. Having federal recognition of the need is a huge step.
Jacqueline Jones is the Director of Education for The Delaware Adolescent Program, Inc.(DAPI)