Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of teen pregnancy. More than 60% of young, unmarried mothers live in households that qualify as being in poverty. 1 in 4 young mothers will go on a welfare benefit program within three years of their child being born. Being a teen mother also means having less access to educational programs, which ultimately affects their ability to provide later on in life.
Teen mothers are less likely to complete high school. They are much more likely to not complete college. This puts them at a disadvantage when it comes time to find a good paying job. The evidence is clear. In the past two decades, the median income for college graduates has risen by 19%, while the median income for those who dropped out of high school has decreased by 28%.
Yet not all of the blame belongs on the mothers when it comes to teen pregnancy. Only 1 in 5 teen men, the fathers of these children, will go on to marry the mothers. This makes it essential for child support to be provided to maintain the stability of the household. Many teen fathers, however, pay less than $800 per year in child support because they also don’t have a good paying job to provide support for their child’s household.
Not only are teen fathers generally less educated themselves, but they are experiencing earning losses which may exceed 15% each year. This creates a cycle of poverty which, if left unchecked, creates the foundation for the next generation of children to also become teen parents, dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.
Why Poverty Matters When It Comes to Teen Pregnancy
Education is clearly the one thing that can break the cycle of teen pregnancy. Yet, according to information from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, this is exactly what teen mothers are not receiving.
- 89% of women who do not have a child as a teen will graduate from high school. Just 38% of teen girls who have a child before the age of 18 will get a high school diploma by the age of 22.
- 30% of teen girls who decide to drop out of high school are doing so because of a pregnancy or because of being a teen mother.
- 2 out of every 3 teen mothers who move out of their parents’ home currently live below the poverty level.
- Less than 25% of teen mothers receive any child support payments, which is why more than 60% of teen mothers are receiving some sort of public benefit before their child celebrates their first birthday.
Poverty has a negative effect on the children born into these situations as well. When a child is born to a mother who is younger than 18, then that child has a higher risk of scoring “significantly worse” on school readiness exams that include math and reading. This struggle creates an intergenerational complication which encourages poverty because there is an overall lack of resources available to teen households.
So why does poverty matter? Because poverty can be the cause of a teen pregnancy, while a teen pregnancy can also be the cause of poverty. This means we must remove the stigmatization that occurs when a pregnancy happens so that the teens involved can get back on their feet from an educational standpoint.
Because, as Martha Kempner writes for Rewire: “Let’s face it: if you graduate from high school and get a job, you are two steps ahead when it comes to not living in poverty, whether or not you get married and have kids.”
Why Does Poverty Cause Teen Pregnancies?
Interestingly enough, the cause of many teen pregnancies seems to be because young women are choosing to become mothers at an early age. It’s more than just having teens being trapped in a cycle of poverty or having some households treating a teen pregnancy as a cultural norm.
It’s because there is a conscious, logical assessment of the teen’s future potential in society and that evaluation leads women in particular to decide to become a parent. If teen girls feel like their chances of being economically successful are low, even if they do their best to do everything in the “right way,” then their choice, more often than not, is to embrace the idea of becoming a teen parent.
This reason behind this is basic satisfaction. The feelings of being a parent, especially at first, can be incredibly gratifying. Teens choose this gratification despite the information which shows that financial, educational, and employment opportunities are few and far between for teens that are young, unmarried, and caring for a child.
Education Unlocks Opportunities More Than a Parenting Style
Time after time, it has been proven that the impact of a parenting style from a teen has less influence on that child’s future socioeconomic status than the quality of an education that a child is able to receive. This is where the problems with poverty come into play. Many households that are living in poverty have actual or perceived roadblocks that are in place when it comes to receiving a quality education.
In the United States, more than 30 million children are growing up in poverty and have access to fewer educational resources than children in wealthier socioeconomic classes. According to facts provided by DoSomething.org, in one low-income community, there was only 1 book available for every 300 children living there.
Yet even when there are equal educational opportunities for children living with teen mothers or living in poverty, the level of education that a child in poverty receives is often lower. This is because children living in poverty miss more days of school than their counterparts. They are often called upon to care for family members, fill-in at work, or take care of other non-educational opportunities.
This has led to a dropout rate in low-income households that is 7 times higher than the general population for students that are 16-24 years of age.
In addition to these challenges, children living below the poverty line are also more likely to suffer from learning disabilities or developmental delays. Teen parents may not know how to access the resources that are necessary to seek out assistance to counter these delays and disabilities.
The end result is a continuation of the cycle of poverty which can lead to another teen pregnancy. Fewer than 30% of students in the bottom quarter of household income will enroll in a 4-year school. From that group, fewer than half will actually graduate. This creates a difficulty in finding a good paying job, which then creates fewer available resources, which then creates a higher probability that a teen pregnancy will occur.
Improving Opportunities Can Eliminate Disparities
Eliminating the disparities which exist in households experiencing teen pregnancies and birth rates would do more than create educational opportunities. It would also create health equities, improve future life opportunities, and reduce the economic costs of having a child as a teen.
Unfortunately, some disparities may always exist. Teens that are in a child welfare system, for example, are at an increased risk of experiencing a pregnancy or birth than other teen groups. Teen girls in foster care are more than twice as likely to become pregnant than teen girls who are not in foster care.
Some disparities, however, can be eliminated almost immediately. Comprehensive sexual educational programs have been proven effective at helping teens be able to make healthier decisions about having sex and helping to adopt positive sexual behaviors. Although abstinence does prevent pregnancies, it does not provide the same level of educational resources to encourage healthy engagement behaviors and abstinence programs do not lower overall sexual activity rates.
By the age of 18, more than 70% of teen girls and 60% of teen boys have had sexual intercourse at least once. Despite this fact, the US has spent more than $1 billion on abstinence-only programs, which fail to provide assistance should a teen pregnancy occur.
With teen pregnancy rates dropping from 62% in 1991 to 41% in 2004, a majority of this decline has been attributed to increased contraceptive use. By making contraceptive use available to low-income households, even when sexual intercourse is not delayed, the cycle of poverty and teen pregnancy can be potentially avoided.
Yet opportunities for improvement can involve more than just educational awareness and resource availability. Limiting neighborhood racial segregation has been found to have a positive effect on teen pregnancy rates. Removing neighborhood physical disorder, such as limiting graffiti, empty alcohol containers, and abandoned vehicles to improve the value of the area, has also had a positive effect.
Improving positive youth involvement opportunities may also limit teen pregnancy rates, sometimes as effectively as reducing neighborhood-level income inequality issues.
Individual Behavior Change Is Important, But It Can’t Be the Only Thing
There have been declines in teen pregnancy rates in all ethnic and cultural areas in the US, but the United States is still one of the world’s leaders when it comes to overall teen pregnancies. That is because there are still several disparities that persist within the poverty classes in the region that have yet to be addressed, despite programs to do so.
This is because many of the evidence-based programs and clinical services that are offered, often without cost, tend to focus on creating behavioral changes on an individualistic basis. Obviously this is an important step in the right direction since many teen girls are choosing parenthood over education, but it cannot be the only way to address the issue of teen pregnancy and poverty.
We must also be willing to shed a light on the social determinants that are occurring which encourage teen pregnancies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this means seeking out a course that will lead us to a society that provides health equity.
Health equity can be achieved when everyone has the opportunity to reach their full health potential. This must be without regard to a person’s social position, their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, or sexual identity.
In the US, this means placing an extra emphasis on rural communities, where poverty is persisting despite overall economic gains since the end of the Great Recession in 2009 due to a lack of overall opportunity.
From data that was published in 2010, teen birth rates in rural counties is 33% higher than the rest of the country at 43 births per 1,000 teen girls compared to 33 births per 1,000 ten girls in the 15-19 age demographic. At the same time, rural teens have seen a decline in teen pregnancy rates of just 32%, compared to larger declines in urban centers of 49% and suburban counties of 40%.
Teen pregnancy and poverty is a cycle that can be broken when we eliminate the stigmas that come when a pregnancy does occur. It can also be broken when we encourage teen girls to look for future economic opportunities that match up to their dreams and financial expectations. Pregnancies will likely always occur at some level in society, but with some work at removing the disparities that are in place, we can make sure that poverty doesn’t continue to cause teen pregnancies in the future.