It's the poverty, stupid

Sex education — comprehensive or abstinence-only — doesn’t do much to change the behavior of adolescents, writes Jonathan Zimmerman in the San Francisco Chronicle. Poverty is the key factor determining whether teens get pregnant, give birth, quit school and raise their children in poverty.

Last year, an exhaustive five-year study confirmed that kids receiving (abstinence) instruction are no more likely to delay sexual intercourse than their peers.

. . . As University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg confirmed last year, in an exhaustive review of the literature, efforts to prove the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education are “generally unimpressive, to say the least.”

Teen pregnancy doesn’t create poverty, Zimmerman writes. Poverty creates teen pregnancy.

As Furstenberg has shown, bearing a child as a teenager doesn’t hurt a woman’s prospects for education, job advancement or marriage. Ditto for her kids, who don’t suffer any measurable consequences from having a teenage mother.

Instead, they suffer for a much more basic reason: They’re poor. About two-thirds of teenage mothers live at or below the poverty line at the time they give birth. The less income and opportunity that you have, the more likely you are to become a teenage parent.

The stats I remember from about 15 years ago list three risk factors for child poverty: Mom had her first child as a teen; Mom wasn’t married when she had her first child; Mom didn’t finish high school. Ninety percent of children in families with all three risk factors were living in poverty; 9 percent of children with none of the three risk factors were in poverty. Kids with one or two factors were in between. Compared to middle-class teen moms, low-income teen mothers are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to marry their child’s father.

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  1. I read the article by Zimmerman. His claim that teen pregnancy doesn’t create poverty flies in the face of common sense to me. He says “bearing a child as a teenager doesn’t hurt a woman’s prospects for education, job advancement or marriage”. Perhaps his claim is based on how the problem is posed.

    If you make a blanket statement that having a young child does not prevent a girl from going to college, you are obviously right. In my college algebra classes I see plenty of parents. But if you say that my college algebra class is just as easy for a parent as for a totally non-attached student, I would totally disagree. Children take time, a lot of time. And passing college algebra also takes a lot of time. That time required for children is not time available to do homework for my class, or to come to my office for help on homework, or to study for a test, or to pore over a returned test and figure out how to recover from a poor grade, or to spend an evening in the library browsing interesting books, or to do a multitude of other things that make college enjoyable and productive. College is harder for students with family responsibilities. It has to be. College is harder for students who have to work. It has to be. College is harder for students with a long commute. It has to be. That some students overcome all these impediments, and even more, is wonderful. But many do not.

    If you make a blanket statement that having a child does not prevent a girl from getting married you are obviously right. Single parents get married all the time. But if you say that a single parent has the same chances as an non-parent of forming a good marriage with a desirable mate, I don’t agree. A prospective mate to a parent has a package deal to consider. There are extra responsibilities, and fewer open doors. That some people are able to meet and overcome these impediments is wonderful. But to say these impediments are irrelevant and unimportant makes no sense to me.

    If you make a blanket statement that having a child does not prevent job advancement, you are obviously right. Many single parents do advance on the job. But if you claim that having a child is no burden to having a job and doing it well, I don’t agree. Parents at work get phone calls, phone calls that say, “Your child is sick. Come get her”, and a lot of other messages that can take a parent away from work, or cause distress that can detract from work. And there are lots of routine things that parents must arrange for, and take time off work for. In the modern world we accept that these things must be accommodated, but to say that these things have no effect seems unrealistic to me. Job advancement possibilities have to be at least somewhat affected when parental responsibilities detract from job performance. If you make a blanket statement that not every child will detract from a parents job performance, you are right. But if you say that no child will detract from a person’s job performance, you’re dreaming.

    And then Zimmerman says “Ditto for her kids, who don’t suffer any measurable consequences from having a teenage mother.” This also sounds crazy. I don’t have any personal experience in this. Perhaps others can fill in some details.

  2. Jeez, I wish the guy didn’t waste the whole article hinting around at a solution although I suppose when the solution you’re espousing, albeit obliquely, is a solution that’s turned out to be failure for the past bunch of decades you can’t afford to be too direct.

    Obviously, if poverty’s the underlying problem then making poverty go away is the solution. Trouble is, the simple, obvious solution – handing out money for breathing – has taken on the odor of ineffectiveness so you can’t be too obvious when you’re trying to make a case for welfare.

    He undercuts his own case though by pointing out that poverty isn’t the cause of illegitimacy, at least not the only cause of illegitimacy. Poverty makes the outcome of illegitimacy more likely to be bad.

    Hand the man a medal for observing the obvious.

    Yeah, being poor is a less desirable state to occupy then wealth and being poor means what’d be an annoyance or troublesome if your were rich is a disaster.

    Since Mr. Zimmerman’s a teacher he wants us to draw the proper conclusion from his teachable moment. Conveniently, he doesn’t have to explain why welfare will work this time when it’s been an abject failure where ever else it’s been tried.

    Heck, you could make a pretty good case for the solution Mr. Zimmerman’s too cautious to propose being the cause of the problem he’s concerned with.

  3. I know some young men whose response to the recent unwed pregnancies of several women of their acquaintance was to say that they would think very hard before getting involved with a woman in this situation. Both the women and the men are professionals (most with graduate degrees), 25-35, with good jobs, attractive, socially adept and from stable, professional, intact families. However, there are plenty of women who have all of the same attributes, without a child, and they are seen as more desirable. I don’t think that is uncommon and I don’t think it is limited to that educational/professional level.

    As for the argument that poverty is the cause, how does that account for the fact that until the 60s, before effective birth control and before legal abortion, unwed prenancy was much rarer? The cases I have seen usually involved engaged couples, also.

  4. In addition, my observation that the most common cause of poverty, especially involving several generations, is poor personal choices. Those start with low educational achievement, unwed pregnancy and the unwillingness to practice those behaviors that all employers value.

    Those start with personal neatness, appropriate dress, being on time, being pleasant and helpful,working hard, making deadlines, learning new skills and in general, being the kind of employee who will not only be retained, but promoted.

  5. Walter Wallis says:

    Delayed gratification has its place in any education. I would recammend marriage at 20, all kids before 30, and no more PTA after 45.

  6. Bill Leonard says:

    Well-said, momof4! The one factor you left out was the reality that in those bad old days, there also was a stigma about being on welfare, and a stigma about illegitimacy. And interestingly, there were in fact far fewer “back ally abortions”, the bogey so beloved of the so-called pro-choice crowd, and proportionately, a lot more babies put up for adoption. It was not at all uncommon for a pregnant high school- or college-aged young woman to “spend the summer at aunt Martha’s” and then return to school.


  7. Devilbunny says:

    momof4, one thing: I think you said “unwed pregnancies” when what you really meant was “unwed births”. I think the former were pretty common.

  8. Brian,

    I agree if a person is poor they would suffer from all of the disadvantages you mention. But since we live in a free market economy, almost all of the disadvantages you mention can be alleviated with money (e.g. daycare, nannies, chauffeurs, tutors, personal shoppers, maids etc.) The only disadvantage I think is insurmountable is missing out on enjoying ones freedom to explore, as bonding with a child takes time. However, that is also an enjoyable experience as well. So perhaps when people took a career for life it was better for people to do the exploring early in life. However, as that paradigm is phasing out the timing is probably less of a factor.


    You are assuming the average case, fair enough. I’ve known a couple people who lack most of the qualities you mention and still became millionaires. Having your parents live in Silicon Valley and having sheer luck can help a lot!

    Tastes Great! Less Filling! Tastes Great! Less Filling! Sometimes it seems to me that liberals and conservatives are stuck in a bud-light commercial. Community Support! Personal Responsibility! Community Support! Personal Responsibility! So I’ll take my inspiration from the great religions of mankind, its both! How do we get there? Check out your local library and maybe you’ll find some wisdom! Good enough answer for a blog I think.

  9. Walter Wallis says:

    Back in the 50’s and before, it was axiomatic that the first baby came along any time, all the rest took 9 months.

  10. Yes, weren’t the old days wonderful? I recall the mystery transfers and the long trips to out of town relatives. The “homes” for unwed mothers and the ruined lives they prevented. I wonder, though, where Bill gets his data to support the belief that “back alley abortions” were less common. Who was collecting such data, and how? And how could they not decline when the market changed–that is, when the procedure was no longer illegal?

    Allen suggests that “welfare” has been a failure, where ever it has been tried. Again–not sure what data he has been relying on. I have been reading recently about educational equity in other countries. It seems that in countries with more highly socialized safety nets, many of the intergenerational effects of poverty are mitigated. In other words, the gap based on socio-economic status is smaller, and the effects of single parenting less pronounced. Immigrant groups also appear to do better. In one account of Finland, the authors (it was an OECD country report) use the term “virtuous cycle.” In other words, where in this country we almost delight in abandoning the children whose parents have the least to offer them (poor choices, don’t you know), in Finland, there is a sense of social responsibility for all children that tends to even out opportunities.

    In this country, and on this board, these kinds of sentiments don’t go over well. But, it does appear as though they work, that is if the intended outcome is to end the cycle of poverty.