A social crisis of alarming proportions is facing the black family. A major part of this crisis is the increasing number of children giving birth to children. Yet there is good news and bad news about the problem.
The bad news is that things are not getting better--more kids are sexually active and the number of those getting pregnant is increasing. Nationally, the number of babies born to unmarried white teen-agers increased from 1969 to 1979 by 46.8 percent and decreased among black teen-agers by 3.5 percent. Although the rate of black adolescent out-of-wedlock births has decreased, a disproportionate number of black teens compared to white teens or black adult women continue to have babies, many of them out of wedlock. Pregnancy takes 40,000 to 50,000 black teen-agers out of school each year. In Washington alone, nearly 10,000 teen-agers became pregnant last year.
The good news is that increasing numbers of adults are beginning to understand the tragedy that occurs when mothers are children themselves. They're moving to find ways to wind down the rate of unintended pregnancies among teen-agers.
This week, a local conference on community solutions brought together more than 220 professionals who work with teen-age pregnancies to develop strategies for preventing the problem. Many of the professionals had never met, and it was a hopeful first step when they agreed that more city-wide networking and communicating could help them do their jobs better.
In addition, a number of black women's organizations have begun to take a leadership role in tackling the issue. Leaders from more than 40 national religious, service, professional, fraternal, and civic organizations representing more than 5 million black women spent five days here not long ago mapping strategy.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, Georgetown University law professor, told them: "Although fewer black infants are being born today, those who are coming into this world are increasingly the children of the mothers least able to provide for them--teen-age girls and other single mothers. Today a majority, or 55 percent, of all black children are born to single mothers."
Black teens who continue to have babies face graver consequences than similar white teens because of poverty and high unemployment.
" An initial lack of education and other opportunities will haunt most of these youngsters--and their children--for the rest of their lives," Norton said. "In 1979 the median income for all families was close to $20,000 but was only $6,600 for black female-headed households."
The statistics constitute a crisis so grave, a catastrophe so dire, that it has been suggested that the black family be declared a national emergency.
"What it could mean quite starkly," Norton said, "is that with the next generation, we could see proportionately greater numbers of disadvantaged people than in this generation because of the proportion of children who got their start in life as the children of disadvantaged single girls and women."
There is a role for government here. Programs that assist low-income people have been seriously cut in this administration, for example, and government needs to help strengthen black families even as its policies have in the past helped tear them apart.
But there is much for blacks and others interested in the country's future social fabric to do as well.
Norton advocates a national strategy to give prominence to the issue so that government and private sources begin to think it through and develop programs. One national goal, she said, could be to significantly reduce teen-age pregnancies by 1985.
That would entail an incredible involvement with young people. In some low-income communities such as far Northeast or Anacostia, some teens have little to look forward to in jobs or training opportunities. They have little motivation not to have a baby.
Such issues as meaningful alternatives for youth must be addressed if this crisis is to be met. One thing is clear. It will only be solved if leaders take charge, and the rest of us roll up our sleeves and tackle it with the seriousness it cries out for.