The Ugly Euginics of ‘Teen Pregnancy Prevention’

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Gary Yates, president of The California Wellness Foundation, recently mischaracterized teen pregnancy, invoked destructive stereotypes that brand poorer mothers’ babies as “social costs,” and falsely credited prevention programs with saving taxpayers $2.2 billion. (“Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Programs Save Tax Dollars,” The Oakland Tribune, Sept. 14)

The so-called “epidemic of teenage pregnancy” was fabricated in the 1970s – after teen birth rates had fallen sharply for 15 years – by Democrats and liberal entrepreneurs who were seeking “moral values” vote-grabbers to counter the pious crusades of Republicans. Attacking teenagers (meaning black, Latina and poor youth) allowed liberals to exploit America’s antiquated eugenic fears about childbearing by poorer populations, without appearing racist.

Since then, conservatives and liberals in the Teen Pregnancy Industry (TPI) have manufactured crises, ignored crucial facts that threaten their agendas and spread increasingly vicious and reckless distortions that stigmatize America’s poorest young women.

Yates mentions only “teenage mothers” and “teenage fathers,” ignoring that the male partners of teenage mothers average 21.5 years old. Why don’t TPI interests reframe teen pregnancy as “the epidemic of adult men impregnating teens?” Because the TPI’s cowardly tactic is to blame social problems on the most powerless entity. Ad campaigns that slander teenagers as “sluts” and “worthless” are safer than confronting adult sexual behaviors.

Nor do Yates and other TPI members demand that politicians redress the unconscionable poverty and opportunity gaps forced on disadvantaged young people, which are the real causes of early childbearing.

The TPI’s cruelest bigotry, which Yates repeats, is the dehumanization of teens’ babies as “social costs,” similar to pollution, which symbolizes the real fear among eugenicists. Poorer minorities rationally have babies at younger ages, not just to hedge against infant mortality and to secure child-raising help while their aging extended-family members remain healthy, but also to bolster their populations, work forces and political power.

In truth, most American children (and the elderly) cost more in taxes than their families pay. Do TPI lobbies believe only rich people should have kids? Then honestly say that, instead of beating up on teenagers.

The doctrine of Yates and others in the TPI that teen mothers create “social costs” misrepresents a 1997 Robin Hood Foundation study by economist V. Joseph Hotz, which was commissioned to prove that teen moms leach taxes. Instead, Hotz’s rigorous, long-term analysis found that teenage motherhood is the least costly option for poor women. The welfare that teen mothers collect is more than offset by the extra taxes they pay from earlier entry into careers in their 20s and 30s, while poorer women who waited to become moms are home watching young children. By age 40, Hotz found, former teen moms had earned $80,000 more than similarly poor women who waited to have children.

Robin Hood’s final report, “Kids Having Kids,” contained a shocking admission: “Adolescent child bearers fare slightly better than later-childbearing counterparts in terms of their overall economic welfare.” Thus, the best study from the TPI itself refutes its claim that teen mothers inflict vast “social costs,” instead suggesting more investment in poorer young parents.

But who reads reports? The TPI’s dishonest political blitzes highlighted only Hotz’s “social costs” and censored the greater social benefits.

Now, California Wellness and the TPI perpetuate this deceit to advance another one: that prevention programs reduce teenage births. In a 2004 news media splash, a group called Get Real About Teen Pregnancy ranked prevention programs in California’s 55 largest cities, implying that the best ones lower teen birth rates.

But when I compared the rankings with the actual birth rates (something Get Real mysteriously failed to do), I found that cities with higher-ranked prevention programs did not have lower teen birth rates or better teen birth trends than did the cities that ranked the worst, even after controlling for poverty and other factors. (See California Journal of Health Promotion, March 2006.)

True, good local programs correlated with improved maternal health and employment, but the only factors predicting teen birth rates were poverty levels and adult birth rates. That’s why the rare programs that invest heavily in improving poorer girls’ economic, educational and job opportunities – like the Carrera Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program of the Children’s Aid Society – consistently reduce births. Unfortunately, it’s easy for other TPI interests to selectively sound the clarion for a few studies that support their strategies while ignoring the hundreds that don’t.

The baseless efforts by TPI to grab credit for declining teen births fail to explain the elemental fact that 90 percent of the decline in births to teens from 1990 to 2004 occurred among married couples, the group least targeted by prevention programs. The TPI treats this unwanted reality like jillions of others – by ignoring it.

A century of squabbling over “teenage sex” and three decades of increasingly distorted teenage pregnancy myths are enough. Poorer mothers aren’t “social problems.” Babies aren’t “social costs.” And warmed-over eugenics is ugly policy.