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
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,
Giving up a child for adoption is rare.
As a child, Dawn made A's in school and dreamed of being a
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. …