The attention the media are paying to the problem of teen-age pregnancy is a welcome development. But too often, the glare of the spotlight leads us only to look for quick fixes and simplistic answers to what is a very complex problem. In the case of teen pregnancy, the danger is that this can lead to a new cycle of blaming the victim and greater race and class polarization.
At the outset, it is important to correct the impression left by the media that the number and rates of black teen births are increasing. They are not. Between 1978 and 1983 black teen births declined by 5 percent, while the rate for white teens rose 2 percent. The crisis that threatens to cripple black economic progress and lock generations of black children into poverty is the growing percentage of black babies born to unmarried women of all ages -- a trend reflected among whites as well.
A single parent under 25 is nine times as likely to be poor as a young woman living on her own without children. Three-quarters of all single mothers under 25 live in poverty. With over half of all teen mothers today raising their children alone, and with those married facing higher rates of separation and divorce, the costs of teen- age parenthood -- to the parents, to the children and to society in terms of money spent and productivity lost -- are too great to ignore.
Teen pregnancy is a problem because we no longer live in an America in which 18-and 19-year-old men can earn enough to support a family, and because we have never had an America in which the average single woman with children could earn a decent wage at any age. In 1970, three teen births out of 10 were to single mothers. In 1983, this number had increased to more than five out of 10. Young men, increasingly unable to fulfill their traditional breadwinner role, are less willing to accept their responsibilities as fathers.
In 1984, 65 percent of teen workers and 29 percent of workers in their early 20s could not make wages sufficient to bring an intact, one-income family with a child out of poverty. Among teen black males, 44 percent were unemployed.
The black community is addressing the crisis among its young children. Children having children was on the cover of Ebony a year before it was on the cover of Time. Over the past three years, almost every major black organization has made teen-age pregnancy, youth self-sufficiency and strengthening black families major priorities.
But this important focus on self-help is not enough. Teen-age pregnancy and parenthood are intimately intertwined with poverty and economic opportunity. Short-lived or underfunded efforts to help poor families and children achieve self-sufficiency have exacerbated the problem. Shrinking government help now promises to further deprive the deprived.
Preventing teen pregnancy requires investing in comprehensive efforts that bolster the motivation as well as the capacity of teens to prevent early sexual activity and pregnancy. We must give teens hope, opportunity, information and skills.
*We must help teens build their academic skills. Youth who are behind a grade or who have poor basic skills or poor school attendance are at high risk of becoming parents too early.
*To give low-income teens hope of earning decent incomes, we must help them develop good work attitudes, occupational knowledge and specific job-related skills.
*A teen's self-sufficiency and vision of a viable future depend on the self-esteem built through both academic and nonacademic experiences. Opportunities for both are too often lacking in many low-income communities.
*All teens need education on sexuality and parenthood and help in integrating that information into their thoughts about the future.
*The relatively poor health status of high-risk teens and their poor access to the health-care system mean we must take steps to give them the full range of primary health care, as well as access to contraception if they are sexually active.
These steps cannot be taken overnight. They need to be adapted to the needs of different communities and target populations. They will take commitment, resources and patience.
The danger is that our search for answers will instead turn to punitive solutions that simply hurt the poor. There are those who look at a family cluster with a one-year-old infant, a 15-year-old mother and a 30-year-old grandmother, and stridently preach that the problem is due to welfare-bred dependency. Do away with welfare and the problem will disappear, they proclaim. They seem to forget that sex came before Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
While welfare does not cause teen pregnancy or birth, it is true that our current welfare system does not encourage formation of two-parent families. Most states do little to help single mothers gain the skills and experience they need to get decent jobs, and half of the states exclude two-parent families from welfare. We must improve the welfare program, and give recipients the chance to get the necessary skills and employment training and child care they need to get off welfare.
Such policy initiatives go only part of the way. We also need a national and community climate that conveys to children and youth that early sexual activity, pregnancy and parenthood are undesirable. American adults need to transmit some clear messages to the young. At least for very young teens -- boys and girls -- the society can help them say no to sexual activity before they are ready to become responsible parents. And our society can and must give the clear message -- and back it up with action -- that if teens wait, the payoff in education and employment and good health will be worthwhile.