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 Stories for April 15, 1998

New Families:Do They Work?
The Upside-down World of Teen-age Parents

This is the second in a series by Berkeley faculty focusing on the troubled state of American families and calling for new policies directed toward helping children.
The authors were brought together from across campus through an interdisciplinary seminar, the Berkeley Forum on the Family. They are among 11 faculty who have collaborated on a book, “All Our Families: New Policies for a New Century.” These essays, written for Berkeleyan, are aimed at bringing the forum debates to a larger campus audience.

by Jane Mauldon, Associate Professor of Public Policy
posted Apr. 15, 1998

Adolescent parenthood has been with us for centuries, but only in the past 25 years has this phrase entered the lexicon of “social problems.”

By conventional wisdom, adolescents are thought to be too self-centered, heedless and moody to be good parents. They do not even have the legal rights and responsibilities of adults. Becoming parents, it is said, will disrupt their own paths toward adulthood and their children’s future opportunities.

The assumption is that if a young woman waits to have a child, she will be better equipped for parenting. She is more likely to be married and to be physically and emotionally mature, with more money, more education and more support from family, friends and the child’s father.

But if early childbearing is so stupid, and delay so obviously smart, what do we make of the one-fifth of all women who give birth before they turn 20? Even if they don’t deliberately intend to have children (and some do), most of these young women neither try very hard to avoid pregnancy nor choose abortion to end it. What do they see about their lives that policymakers do not see?

Could it be they see a world of very limited resources and even less opportunity? They see they have almost no chance of finding work while they are still teen-agers. Few of their friends are going to college, and their own poor school records and lack of funds seem to rule out college for them, too. They are surrounded by young men with the same limited prospects.

In the harsh environments that are the inner cities and poor rural towns of this country, young children may seem to provide one of the few bright sources of hope, of relationship and joy to teen-agers who think they will lose little and might gain much if they have a child – and they could be right.

Ethnographic data and at least one large-scale study support the argument that, given the lack of educational and employment opportunities available to disadvantaged adolescents in the United States today, and the lack of child care and other assistance for low-income parents of young children, some young women – not all, but some – are better off having their children as teen-agers rather than in their early 20s.

Most surprisingly, the taxpayer may be better off too. In a national study from 1996, welfare expenditures for women who had babies before age 18 were less than for equally poor women who had babies in their early 20s. The same study showed that teen-age mothers had worked and earned more by the time they were in their mid-30s than had comparable women who delayed childbearing until age 20 or 21. The differences were small, but they clearly ran counter to expectations.

Why? The answer seems to be that having children while very young permits these women to enter the labor market when they are in their mid-20s. Later childbearing delays their start into paid employment.

Teen-age mothers may also have a greater claim on familial resources such as child care than older mothers do. They often have a greater claim on social resources, in the form of specialized education programs for teen-age parents, health care and (sometimes) counseling. No comparable special programs exist to help poor mothers in their 20s.

Some social scientists now talk of teen-age childbearing as an “alternative life course,” meaning alternative to the recommended life-course of education, then marriage and childbearing. It is a shocking indictment of America’s racial and economic inequalities that one can plausibly see early childbearing as an adaptive strategy for some young women, a strategy that might actually be better for them than delaying parenthood.

Middle-class, middle-age adults like to believe that young people have a world of opportunities before them. But most of the girls who become teen-age mothers are not living in that world. They cannot realistically expect to become economically secure members of the middle class. They have been left behind by America’s powerful economic engine.

Contributing Authors to “All Our Families: New Policies For a New Century” (Oxford University Press, 1998).

  • Richard P. Barth, Social Welfare

  • Philip and Carolyn Pape Cowan, Psychology

  • Paula S. Fass, History

  • Neil Gilbert, Social Welfare

  • Mary Ann Mason, Social Welfare

  • Jane Mauldon, Public Policy

  • Arlene Skolnick, Institute for Human Development

  • Judith Stacey, Sociology, University of Southern California

  • Stephen D. Sugarman, Law

  • Judith Wallerstein, formerly Social Welfare

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