Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

In Teen-Age Pregnancy, It Isn't Race, It's Poverty Girls Who See College, Marriage Down the Road Use Birth Control

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

In Teen-Age Pregnancy, It Isn't Race, It's Poverty Girls Who See College, Marriage Down the Road Use Birth Control

Article excerpt

Teen-age mothers have become the prime target of welfare reformers. The theory is that poor girls will stop having babies it they can't rely on welfare to support them. But logic seldom rules in the realm of teen-agers and sex. One young mother's story shows how tangled the problem is.

SHE'S AN UNEMPLOYED, unwed mother at 17, but Dawn Kowalski feels blessed when she cradles baby Justin - a warm bundle of tomorrow dozing in her arms.

Before the baby came along, Dawn had no future.

Stroking his hair, she describes her former self: a school dropout from a troubled home, with no job and no plans. She wasted her days at the mall, partied all night.

"I didn't care what happened to me," she said softly.

Now her world is a small apartment dotted with diapers and parenting magazines, the rent paid by a federal housing subsidy. She lives alone with 6-week-old Justin, nursing him, sleeping when he sleeps, listening to country music because MTV makes him wail.

Dawn may be an accidental mother, but she takes pride in being a good one. "This has made me a better person," she said recently. "It's really straightened my life out."

More than one million teen-agers will get pregnant this year; about a third of them will be age 17 or younger.

Teen-agers will give birth to a half-million babies - 70 percent born out of wedlock.

Compared with other teen-age girls, teen mothers are less likely to finish their education, less likely to earn a decent wage and more likely to spend years on welfare. Families headed by current or former teen mothers receive $34 billion a year in government health and welfare benefits.

Americans worried as the teen pregnancy rate climbed over the past two decades, reflecting an increase in the number of teens having sex.

It could be worse, however. Teens who have sex today use birth control more effectively than sexually active teens of the past.

Abortion also has kept the teen birth rate down: more than a third of pregnant teens decide to abort.

Middle-class teens have become so successful at avoiding birth that teen mothers are now widely perceived to be poor, black girls living in the inner cities. But many rural areas also have high teen birth rates, and there are more than twice as many white teen-age mothers as black ones.

The common denominator is disadvantage: 83 percent of teens who have babies are from poor families, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a not-for-profit research group.

These girls are only slightly more likely than middle-class teens to have sex. They are significantly more likely to get pregnant, however, and much less likely to have an abortion, Guttmacher found.

Giving up a child for adoption is rare.

As a child, Dawn made A's in school and dreamed of being a lawyer.

But life at home was chaotic. Dawn's parents were always fighting; money was always short.

Whenever her father grew too abusive, "Mom would just pack us off to the women's shelter," said Dawn's stepsister, Tina Fleming, now 20. "We lived in the shelter off and on."

Things got worse when Dawn's parents separated, then divorced when she was 11. For years Dawn was bounced back and forth between her father and mother.

"My life fell apart," Dawn said. "I quit caring."

Dawn began skipping school, staying out late, drinking at parties. She tried sex for the first time at age 15, Dawn said, because "everybody was talking about it."

Soon after she turned 16, Dawn quit school. A few months later, she was pregnant.

Teen mothers have become a favorite target of welfare reformers in both political parties - they say the current system rewards teens for having illegitimate babies.

Girls like Dawn get welfare checks and other aid that lets them set up their own households and feel like instant adults, even if they are barely scraping by. …

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