Poverty Is a Factor in Teen Pregnancy

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Poverty Is a Factor in Teen Pregnancy

Post  showard1 on Mon Mar 03, 2008 3:50 pm

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When asked by an interviewer what she had dreamed of before she had become a teen mother, Skanika, a twenty-four-year-old with three kids, no high school degreem, and no job, replied, "You know, I really didn't have a dream."

Shanika is among the 80 percent of unwed teenage mothers who were raised in an environment of extreme poverty. Many of these poor teen mothers grew up lacking even basic resources such as health care, adequate nutrition, and safe homes. Kristin Luker, author of Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teen Pregnancy, describes the kind of life teen mothers like Shanika have experienced.

They were born poor and grew up in poor neighborhoods. Their early lives
were often scarred by violence and disorder, including sexual abuse. They
attended rundown, underequipped schools in which teachers struggled to
discipline and motivate the students, and they were typically not among the
lucky and clever few who managed to obtain a little extra attention from
their teachers, coaches, or adult neighbors. They were born into families
that were at the end of the social and economic queue, and their life
experiences rarely moved them any closer to the front.

It is not diffcult to understand, then, why Shanika did not have childhood dreams for the future. Poor teens ofter believe that they have little chance of escaping the communities where they were raised. Unfortunately, their feelings of hopelessness are not without basis. As Luker explains:

The odds against achieving even...modest dreams are getting longer. Young
women with limited educational and labor market skills face many more obstacles
to a stable relationship and a secure job than they used to, especially when
they are members of minority group and come from poor homes. And the
young men in their lives have bleaker employment prospects than ever, making
them a slender reed for young women to rely upon.

The feelings of hopelessness so prevalent in poor communities help explain why so many
teens from poor backgrounds become parents before they are ready. As Michael A. Carrera, a scholar on teen sexuality, theorizes, many poor teens many engage in sex as a way to temporarily escape the problems and stresses of their lives. He writes that

Most [poor] young people see little employment opportunity around them
and will probably face a life of low economic status, ever-present racism,
and inadequate opportunities for quality education....Growing numbers of
adolescent voices are now saying, "There is no hope. There is no one who
values me. There is no one who cares." Under such conditions, it is no
wonder that some young people, intstead of becoming industrious and
hopeful, become sexually intimate for a short-term sense of comfort....
In such cases, intercourse is used as a coping mechanism.

Scholars Robert cole and Geoffrey Stokes also conclude from their research that many disadvantaged teens turn to sex as a reprieve from "a life that can be, often enought, boring or demanding or puzzling."

Many poor teens who are sexually active lack access to birth contgrol--or have access but cannot afford the expense. Schools in their communities are far less likely than other schools to provide sex-education courses. However, even those poor teens who do have adequate knowledge about and access to contraception may not be sufficiently motivated to avoid pregnancy.

Unlike middle-class teenage girls, poor teenage girls do not have the promise of college or a career as an incentive to postpone early pregnancy. In fact, many regard motherhood as the only role available to them-and the only role in which they feel they might succeed. Therefore, for many teen mothers who live in poverty, having a child is an act of hope, because it offers them-or at least their children-a chance for a better life. As Luker writes, "Having a baby is a lottery ticket for many teenagers: it brings with it at least the dream of somethiing better, and if the dream fails, not mich is lost."

Just as poor teenage girls sometimes turn to motherhood as a chance to improve their lives, some poor teenage boys view fatherhood as an emblem of pride or a way to add meaning to their existence. For example, community worker John Williams states that in some gang communities, "Many of these people don't think they'll live a long time, so having a child is their way of expressing themselves, of proving they have relevance." One former Los Angeles gang member, Osvaldo Cruz, whose teenage girlfriend's pregnancy was not accidental, says that "there was an emptiness inside of me, and I thought if I have a baby, I could give him everything I couldn't have."

The current debate about teen pregnancy, by failing to address why many teens may choose to have babies, betrays a lack of understanding of the difficulties faced by the poor. Most Americans contend that teenagers would be better off if they waited to have children until they reached adulthood and became financially secure. What this argument fails to acknowledge, however, is that the majority of the poor never reach financial security. As well-paying industrial jobs are replaced by low-wage jobs in the service industry due to changes in the American economy, poor people are increasingly unable to afford parenthood. As Luker explains, "Given the scarcity of decent jobs, a substantial minority of Americans simply cannot afford to have children....A child born to married parents who can fully support it is, like safte neighborhoods and good schools, becoming a luxury, accessible only to the wealthy." A poor teen who postpones having a baby until adulthood, then, is not significantly better off than a poor teen who does no-which means that poor teens have little reason to prevent pregnancy.

Consequently, the most effective way to deal with the issue of teen pregnancy is to expand opportunities for the poor, so that disadvantaged teens feel they have other options besides parenthood, and so that girls like Shanika have the luxury of dreaming.

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