Welfare Bill Won't Stop Teenage Pregnancy

Article excerpt

Welfare reform is once again in play. President Clinton's veto of the budget reconciliation bill, which included welfare reform, and his desire to work with Congress to craft a welfare bill more to his liking, reopen some of the knottiest issues in the United States today.

Among the most controversial is the question of what role welfare plays in encouraging teenage pregnancy and childbearing. About one-half of women on welfare were teens when they had their first child. In general, teenage mothers are much less likely than their childless peers to complete high school and much more likely to need long-term support.

Does this mean welfare promotes teen pregnancy? Those who say yes argue you get more of what you subsidize. But if this were the case, one would expect teen birth rates to have declined in recent years, as welfare benefits have shrunk. Instead, births to teenagers have increased. The argument that welfare encourages teen births also suggests that European countries, which offer more generous benefits than the US, should have higher rates of teenage childbirths. Yet they don't.

So if welfare doesn't promote teen pregnancy, what does? Overwhelmingly, evidence points to four underlying factors, none of which are addressed by cutting welfare to teenage parents. These factors are: 1) early school failure, 2) early behavior problems, 3) poverty, and 4) family dysfunction. Study after study finds a strong link between these four conditions and early sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, and adolescent parenthood.

As early as elementary school, children who have trouble in school often become frustrated and exhibit behavior problems. As school success becomes less attainable, they may see little value in playing by the rules that help other students get ahead. Over time, some grow susceptible to dangerous influences in their neighborhoods and schools and to negative messages in the news media and popular culture. Too often, the results are drug and alcohol use, violence, and early and unprotected sex, which can lead to teen pregnancy.

Poor children, in particular, may feel less hopeful about the future and may therefore see less reason than more-affluent children to delay childbearing until after marriage - or at least until they are financially able to support a child. Data on teen pregnancy and childbearing consistently show that adolescents in poor families and communities tend to initiate sexual intercourse at a younger age, to use contraceptives less effectively, and to have more unintended pregnancies. …