Pregnant with Possibility - Pacific Standard

Pregnant with Possibility

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In a recent op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times and on his own online site, YouthFacts.org, contrarian sociologist Mike Males takes the media to task for their unquestioning embrace of the Gloucester (Massachusetts) High School pregnancy pact story, which — after having been disseminated around the world and dissected for its greater sociological meaning — has now been mostly discredited.

Males is the author of such books as The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents and Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation, in which he defends young people against what he says are spurious claims about their criminality and dysfunction.

He considers teen pregnancy another faux symptom of the supposed pathology of youth. Of the Gloucester story, in which large numbers of teenage girls were alleged by their high school principal to have conspired to get pregnant so they could raise their babies together, and similar urban legends, Males writes: "Selected ‘facts' and fables are repeated, often wildly exaggerated and sometimes made up to suit the immediate needs of this or that teen-pregnancy prevention group."

In light of Males's charge and the debunking of the pregnancy pact story, we wanted to revisit Deborah Rogow's June 20 piece for our site, "The Lessons of Gloucester." Decrying the fact that "by and large, even the most ‘comprehensive' sex education programs fail to address gender issues in any meaningful way," Rogow suggests that the key to reducing teenage pregnancy may lie in helping girls find self-worth in roles other than their sexual and reproductive ones, and broadening boys' concept of masculinity to encompass traits other than virility.

In this regard, she shares ground with Males, who objects to the very terms "teen pregnancy" and "teenage childbearing" in part for reasons related to gender. In his paper "Teens and Older Partners," Males notes that these terms are "defined by the age of the female only" and points to California statistics from 2002 indicating that less than a fifth of the babies born to mothers aged 15-17 were fathered by males aged 18 or younger (nearly half were fathered by men 20 and older).

"Instead of criticizing the ‘high rate of teenage pregnancy' in the U.S." he asks in his op-ed piece, "shouldn't we be condemning the ‘high rate of adults impregnating teens'?"

Noting higher rates of pregnancy among teens from economically disadvantaged groups, Rogow also mentions the role that socioeconomic factors play in early pregnancy and parenting: "Limited sense of opportunity has always pushed girls into the mommy track."

Males goes a provocative step further.

"Teenage motherhood may actually make economic sense for poorer young women," he asserts, citing the work of Duke University's V. Joseph Hotz, who argues that because teenage mothers typically come from families that are minority, low-income, female-headed, and have low levels of formal education, these are young women who are likely to receive welfare in their early lives even if they didn't become mothers before age 18.

To get what he considers a more accurate measure of the monetary impact of teen motherhood, Hotz compared the economic outcomes of women who had been teen mothers to those of women from similarly disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds who had delayed childbearing until they reached young adulthood. In longitudinal studies published in 1997 and 2005, Hotz and his research partners demonstrated  that by the time they reached their mid-30s, women who became mothers as teens earned nearly 25 percent more in wages and received less in welfare benefits than women who became mothers slightly later in life.

"Taxpayers would save virtually nothing if all these women [teen moms] had delayed their first birth by 2 to 2.5 years," says Hotz. "In fact, we estimate that the total annual expenditures on public assistance would increase slightly, rising by $800 million if all of these women had delayed their childbearing."

Hotz is an economist, so his research aims to demonstrate that the welfare costs to taxpayers of teenage motherhood have been exaggerated. But based on Hotz's results, sociologist Males believes that the social costs of teen motherhood may also have been overstated.

To the extent that teen parenthood is a problem that needs to be prevented, says Males, it should be reduced because it's a symptom of poverty: "A distinct motivator for early childbearing is the fact that older, adult men provide incentive for impoverished teenage women from chaotic families to escape their difficult circumstances with partners that, presumably, can offer greater maturity, economic resources, and independence. The best prevention strategy is to reduce the number of young women and men in circumstances from which escape through early parenthood is desirable."

In his writing, Males often makes the case that any number of social pathologies attributed to youth - drug abuse, violent crime, suicide - are actually far more prevalent among older demographic groups. In light of this, it's somewhat ironic that Males and Rogow both cite statistics showing an increase in the teen birth rate (typically equated to non-marital births). In reviewing birth data for 2006, Stephanie Ventura of the National Center for Health Statistics notes, "Less than a quarter of births to unmarried women are to teenagers, so teenage childbearing and out-of-wedlock childbearing are no longer synonymous. Actually, the biggest increases in unmarried births are to women in their 20s. If you just look at women in their early 20s, about 60 percent of their births are to unmarried women."

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