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
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. …