Monday, May 21, 2012

Why Are Teen Moms Poor? Does Why Matter?

This piece in Slate sums up some recent research I've been relying on in a project I've been working on on minors' consent to adoption -- the research shows that teen moms are poor because they were poor to begin with, not that they become poor because of the consequences of parenting:
Delivering the commencement address last weekend at the evangelical Liberty University, Mitt Romney naturally stuck primarily to “family values” and religious themes. He did, however, make one economic observation that intersects with some fascinating new research. “For those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child,” he said, “the probability that they will be poor is 2 percent. But if [all] those things are absent, 76 percent will be poor.”

These are striking numbers, but they raise the age-old question of correlation and causation. Does this mean that the representative high-school dropout would be doing much better had he stuck it out in school for a few more years? Or is it instead the case that the population of high-school dropouts is disproportionately composed of people who have attributes that lead to low earnings?

When it comes to early pregnancy, surprising new evidence indicates that Romney and most everyone else have it backward: Having a baby early does not hamper a young woman’s economic prospects, as Romney implies. Rather, young women choose to become mothers because their economic outlook is so objectively bleak.

* * *

Kearney and Levine used data on miscarriages to isolate the impact of giving birth from background characteristics that may contribute to a decision to give birth. When used this way as a statistical control, the negative consequences of teen childbirth appear to be small and short-lived. Young women who gave birth and young women who miscarried have similarly bleak economic outcomes. Similarly, when you compare teen mothers not to the general population but to their own sisters who aren’t teen moms “the differences are quite modest."
In the article I'm working on about minors' consent to adoption, I've been exploring why it is legislatures are so comfortable in allowing minors -- who aren't allowed to make legally-binding decisions like signing a cell-phone contract -- to relinquish their parental rights, which has to be one of the most consequential decisions one can make, given the importance we accord to parental rights. 

We talk about parenting as a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. We won't allow involuntary termination of parental rights by the government absent a showing of harm by clear and convincing evidence, a standard higher than the usual preponderance of the evidence standard we use in other civil actions.  Yet we allow a minor, unassisted by parents, lawyers or counselors, to voluntarily relinquish these parental rights in the vast majority of American states.  In only 15 states are there additional protections accorded to minors who are relinquishing parental rights -- compare that to the 36 states that require parental notice or consent when a minor makes a decision about abortion.

So why is that? I think the prominence of the idea that being a teen mom causes poverty plays a big part in the comfort level we have with separating young moms from their children.  If being a teen mom is the cause of poverty, then it is obviously in the best interest of the teen to relinquish the child so that she can escape from poverty.  Since her decision to relinquish is so clearly the only rational decision she could make, we don't need any additional protections to make sure she makes a reasoned and informed decision.  We can explain her relinquishment as not only in her child's best interest, but as being in her best interest, too. 

This research turns this thinking on its head.  If poverty is not the inevitable consequence of teen parenting, then perhaps relinquishment isn't the only rational decision.  And if it isn't the only rational decision, maybe we should consider altering the requirements for relinquishment when the mother is a minor.  Maybe more than 15 states should consider requiring some grownup other than the adoption agency representative be in the room when a young mom is making that decision. Some options include requirements that minor moms be appointed independent legal counsel or a guardian ad litem, sign relinquishment papers only in the presence of a judge, notify the minors' parents, and/or require independent psychological counseling.

What do you think?


B.A. said...

A couple of posts back, someone commented that she thinks there ought to be more support available for overwhelmed single moms. Should there then be more support available for overwhelmed married moms? How about moms with incomes that are more than $60k/yr? How is a pregnant teenager going to raise a child? How is she going to finish so going to pay for childcare if she goes to work? Who is going to take care of this child raising a child, which is what it boils down to. Our society convinces teen moms to give up their babies because it doesn't want to have to pay for them. Does an overwhelmed teen mom deserve more support than an overwhelmed 27 yr old single mom? How about more than an overwhelmed 45 yr old married mom who earns 6 figures? Who decides who is the most overwhelmed and in the greatest need of services? The mom who can keep a roof over her head and food in her baby's tummy, or the mom who is getting ready to kill her kid because she can't stand living with him any more? I don't think the 2nd mom gets much in the way of services, but she'll get plenty of gov't services after she is locked up for life.

Anonymous said...

I was a teen mom and I was poor. I was poor before having my eldest because my adoptive mother was living off benefits and was an alcoholic.
I left home with my daughter 3 months after she was born because I wanted to give her a better life. Years later, I graduated and have great job plus a great husband and our children have everything that they need. I just needed to fight a bit harder than others but it was well worth the fight.

PhoenixRising said...

After my mom and dad got divorced, there were many lean times in our family (my mother, brother and myself), but there was not one moment during that time that I said or thought that I wished I had been adopted, or was not with my mother. Not ONE time. She was my mom. She brought me into this world and she was my family.

Do people have nothing better to do with their lives then meddle in other people's finances and the like, deciding what is best for someone else and their children?

I find that to be disturbing and quite creepy...

Unknown said...

If teens need their parents' permission to place their children for adoption, do they then need their parents' permission to parent?

For the record, I'm not in favor of minors needing their parents' permission for abortions either. said...

What about better access to birth control and sex eduation for teenagers so they don't become pregnant? What about the fathers? What responsibility do they have?

Anonymous said...

zhou said: "What about better access to birth control and sex eduation for teenagers so they don't become pregnant?"

The defunding of planned parenthood and the war on contraception doesn't like a common sense approach like yours.

Sadly the way the US is changing they are going back to the 50's and abstinence and zero education...ready for the next baby scoop era...

Anonymous said...

Oh this topic is so hot for me. It makes me so angry. So angry that I read it and had to step away.

O.K. back but still angry. I was a teen mom. I had a baby. I fell in love with a boy and he fell in love with me. We did what people in love do,we did what biology dictated us to do,we expressed our love for each other and that resulted in a kick-ass human-being.

I didn't have my baby because there was something wrong with me, as if being poor is a character flaw. I had my baby because I loved him like I loved every pregnancy/baby that I experienced from the moment I found out there was a baby in me.

I had my baby because there was something right with me.Because I loved a boy and he loved me and therefore we loved our baby,who makes me so proud it is silly and he is a man now.

I am now a middle-aged woman, I couldn't imagine dealing with a toddler at this stage of the game,they take everything off the shelf when they are like 15months,they make you watch old Godzilla movies all the time when they are 5 and then you take to the modern Godzilla movie when they are like 6,starring stupid Matthew Broderick,and they so don't get it,the moviemakers,and KILL ZILLA and your child bawls. Oh and the pet rat,don't even let me rant about him screaming at me, "You never loved the rat, you just pretended too!"

I was at the best possible place,health-wise,my body bounced back in like 30 days,size 2 again, flexibility wise,and am less likely to get breast-cancer. I got free day-care at uni.Although I don't want to give the impression that I think uni. is all that. Being a teen mom was the best decision of my life.

The harm in it comes from the pathologizing.From the grandparents who would be happy to "baby-sit" if their daughter was 25, but reject a family member if their daughter is 16. It is all lies.

Reena said...

I don't know that having another "adult" in the room with a young expectant woman would really address a young woman receiveing unbiased counselling. I am assuming folks are thinking of a young woman's mom in this situation-- in my limited expereince it is often the parents of a young expectant woman who are really the decision-makers. I am nto saying this is the way it should be-- but the parents have resources that they can either offer to share or say that they will not share. I think it is a scary situation for a young woman to become pregnant-- regardless, but then to have your parents saym "you will be on your own with the baby," versus them saying "it isn't going to be easy but we are here to help you however we can," really makes a huge difference.

-J.D. Humenay said...

Gotta put my 2 cents in here. My bio mom was 15. She was sneaking around with an older man (20) and didn't want to believe she was pregnant. She didn't get prenatal care until she was 7 months along already. I had to be revived when I was born. They gave me up for adoption because they felt a 15 year old couldn't give me the chance in life I deserved. I ended up with a couple who had already adopted a boy 3 years before. They were well established and gave us a good life, despite economic ups and downs. As long as my emotional life was stable, everything else fell into place.
Here's where things get interesting - my mom (Adopted mom) had a child when SHE was 16 that she gave up for adoption. She and my dad (again adopted dad) couldn't get pregnant so they adopted us.

This whole "every teenager is going to have sex" thing is bull. Kids have control. They are not taught accountability. Sex isn't an "accident". You don't slip and fall and have sex. You make a decision (or series of decisions) that lead to it.

I didn't decide to wait until on my wedding night to engage in activities that could involve in pregnancy because of anything I learned in school. I didn't do it because I couldn't get dates.

I waited until I was nearly 22 because I wanted to make sure he was legally required to be there in the morning, should something happen. I waited because I learned how hard and painful it was for these 2 key women in my life, and I didn't want that for myself. In fact, I felt I owed it to them to make different decisions.

While, sure, I'm all for sex ed, I'm more for "decision education." Really thinking through all the possible consequences keeps kids out of a lot (not all, but a lot) of trouble.

Then again... I'm probably just a goody-two-shoes. ;)