Teen pregnancy perpetuates D.C. poverty

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 8, 2011;

Let's take a closer look at an issue that folks don't like to talk about because it means acknowledging an unpleasant truth: Teen pregnancy in the District is helping to do us in.

Most D.C. teens with babies aren't living the life of a Bristol Palin. Their pregnancies didn't make them instant celebrities; they don't land paid speaking engagements or stints on "Dancing with the Stars," or come by enough money to buy a five-bedroom house in Arizona for $172,000 in cash.

For many teens in the District, pregnancy means an unstable life in the underclass. The DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy describes teen pregnancy as "a one-way ticket to persistent poverty."

I talked this week with Brenda Rhodes Miller, executive director of the group.

Teen pregnancy, she noted, is a driving force behind the rolls of the District's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. And it is the origin of many of the children placed in the city's foster-care system.

Consider welfare. About 17,000 District families are enrolled in TANF. "By many estimates," Miller said, "over 50 percent of TANF recipients started their families when they were teens."

And consider this: In 2009, the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency served a total of 3,841 abused, neglected or abandoned children. Nearly 76 percent of them - 2,903 children - were born to teen parents or parents who had previous children as teens. In fact, 2,008 were born to teens who had two or more children.

There are other consequences. Miller said children in foster care are much more likely than other youth to be classified with an emotional or behavioral disorder and to be placed in special education programs.

But it's not just welfare. List the D.C. budget's big-ticket expenditures other than TANF - foster care, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, special education - and you will find a nexus to teen pregnancy.

The District's problem - a stunning contrast with the teen birthrate nationally, which has fallen for 16 of the past 18 years and hit a record low in 2009 - isn't going away. Raw numbers tell the story.

The District had 852 teen births citywide in 2005, according to the D.C. Health Department. Since then, the figure has climbed, from 999 teen births in 2006 to 1,051 in 2007, and to 1,082 in 2008, the last year for which data are available.

Wards 7 and 8, located east of the Anacostia River, led the city in teen births, racking up 518 births in 2007 and 523 in 2008.

It should come as no surprise that half of all children in Wards 7 and 8 live in poverty, according to Miller. It is a condition their children are also likely to inherit.

That "one-way ticket" to poverty should concern all of us.

Teen pregnancy contributes to a poverty that is measured in more than income. We're talking about a destabilizing poverty that crushes the lives of boys and girls and the babies they create, not to mention our family structure. It is the kind of poverty that runs through the fabric of our schools, courts, social services and the entire community.

So doesn't it follow that the prevention of teen pregnancy should be one of the city's top priorities? Of course. But that calls for acknowledging the relationship between single motherhood among the poor and many of our city's social ills.

That's not a concern you hear expressed very often in city hall. Neither is it voiced in places where social values are supposed to be taught, including some of our homes and churches.

Oh, yes, as a community, we can get all hot and bothered over bike lanes and dog parks. But we turn a blind eye to neighborhoods filled with single, unwed mothers unprepared to raise their fatherless babies. Don't even get me going on the "father" issue.

Our feigned blindness is doing both them and ourselves a disservice.

Miller said it best: "Spending money on the front end for high-quality programs and services that motivate young people to postpone pregnancy until they've gotten an education and grown up is a much smarter investment than trying to pick up the pieces on the back end."

Unfortunately, we're losing a lot of the pieces on the back end as well.


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