Teen parents: depressed, poor but not beyond help

Strategic interventions could vastly improve lives, prof suggests

By Clint Talbott

Stefanie Mollborn, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado

When Stefanie Mollborn asks her students how many teen-agers will get pregnant, they guess low. That’s because in college students’ circles, teen pregnancy is rare. Only 2 percent of teen mothers later earn a college degree, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

Mollborn, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, sometimes surprises her students by noting that about one in six American girls will give birth during her teens.

“It really is that widespread,” she emphasizes.

Slightly more than half of teen mothers earn high-school diplomas before they’re 22, compared to 89 percent of females who didn’t give birth as teens, according to the nonprofit group Child Trends.

Public discourse about teen pregnancy often focuses on prevention. Much of Mollborn’s work, on the other hand, zeroes in on the consequences and also suggests “policy levers” that could improve the lives of teen mothers and their children.

The social context is illuminating. The rates of teen pregnancy have been generally falling; between 1995 and 2002, for instance, the teen-pregnancy rate dropped 30 percent for girls aged 15 to 17, and 12 percent for older teens, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

But teen-pregnancy rates have started rising again, by 3 percent for 15-17-year olds between 2005 and 2006.

Additionally, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is five times higher than the rate in the Netherlands, four times that of Germany and three times that of France, government studies show. The teen abortion rate in the United States is more than twice that of Germany and nearly twice as high as France’s, according to the group Advocates for Youth.

Meanwhile, Americans’ use of contraception was much lower than that of their European counterparts.

“There’s the political discussion and the academic discussion, and they’re quite different from each other,” Mollborn notes. “Our kids are having sex about the same age as those in many other developed countries. We’re not unique in that respect, but what is different is our use of contraception.”

That’s an important point, because of teen pregnancy’s consequences, which include higher rates of poverty and lower levels of education. More than half of kids living in poverty have a mom who first gave birth as a teen, and about half of teen moms and their kids are living in poverty.

“When you’re talking about teen parents, you’re often talking about poverty.” But that poverty is not caused by teens becoming parents as much as it is by the disadvantaged backgrounds the teens came from before they had children, researchers conclude.

Mollborn’s research has underscored that view. In an article published in The Sociological Quarterly this year, in fact, Mollborn found that teenagers in more impoverished communities experienced less embarrassment about the prospect of becoming pregnant and had higher rates of pregnancy. These differences in education and poverty levels explain why teens from predominantly African American and Latino communities are less embarrassed at the prospect of pregnancy.

Given the stark economic, educational and social consequences of teen pregnancy, it’s no surprise that many teen mothers are depressed. But in an important paper published last year in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Mollborn found that teen pregnancy might be a symptom, not a cause, of emotional distress.

“Psychological stress does not appear to be caused by teen childbearing, nor does it cause teen childbearing, except for severe psychological distress among girls from poor households,” Mollborn told the American Sociological Association, which publicized her findings.

Mollborn’s research used data from two large, long-term surveys of girls and women. On repeated occasions, the study’s participants were asked if they experienced symptoms of depression (though that clinical term was not used).

The findings have public health implications in that they might help identify at-risk teens. As Mollborn says, “If you have a girl who’s a young mom, that’s a red flag that she might be depressed. If you have a young girl who’s depressed, that’s a red flag that she might get pregnant.”

Once she is pregnant, the question becomes how to help. Mollborn has found evidence suggesting that a few simple interventions can drastically improve the lives of young mothers and their kids.

Having access to child care is key, Mollborn suggests. Child care appears not only to help the child’s cognitive and behavioral development, but it also helps the mother get more education and start a career. “To me, child care can be a really important policy lever,” Mollborn says.

“I’ve done interviews with many teen moms and dads in Denver, and they’ll tell you that child care is enormously important,” she adds.

In addition to child care, access to transportation and flexible work schedules help young parents make the most of their lives.

“These are things that we as a society can do, and they really pay off,” Mollborn says, adding that, “politically, they’re sellable.”

When they become parents, moms and dads are willing to go to great lengths to make something of themselves for the sake of their kids. Because of these parents’ motivation to improve their lives, that time is a “magic policy moment,” if there’s a short-term influx of resources to help them stay on track with their goals, she adds.

At the same time, Mollborn notes, there’s still more effort aimed at preventing teen pregnancies than at dealing with the aftermath. In the debate leading to welfare reform in 1996, public opinion was against teen moms, Mollborn recalls.

“If the goal were to get teen moms off of welfare, (reform) has done a fantastic job. If the goal were to help teen moms lift themselves out of poverty, in many cases it’s been a failure.”

About 64 percent of “deeply poor” children, those with household incomes that are less than half of the poverty line, were lifted out of deep poverty line before welfare reform. By 2005, the portion had dropped to 23 percent.

During the same period, public opinion has shifted. Mollborn notes that sociology Professor Janet Jacobs, who collaborated in some of Mollborn’s research, was struck by the change. Twenty years ago, families didn’t like teen pregnancy, but teen parents were generally treated like adults.

“Now, the talk is more like, ‘You’ve ruined your life, and not only that, but now we have to support you,’” Mollborn says.

Fathers are still around, but with a less formal commitment; in two decades, the portion has dropped from about 50 percent of teen moms who are married to around 20 percent.

About half of all teen dads live with their children during infancy, and many others see their children frequently, but over time many of them tend to fade out of their children’s lives.

Economic conditions are part of the picture too, Mollborn notes. “Now (low-income families) have less money, and grandma’s working too.”

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