In fairy tales, there are two possible outcomes for a young girl. In the Disney version, the handsome prince rescues her, then marries her, and everyone lives happily ever after. In the dark version, the heroine makes a dreadful mistake that leads to disaster. For the past 15 years, political pundits have been telling us a dark fairy tale about American teens, blaming who have babies out of wedlock. This assumption guided the welfare reform act of 1996, which promised to write America a happy ending by getting teens to stop having babies, get married, and thus end poverty.
But a new longitudinal study by Frank Furstenberg shows that fairy tales have no place in the realm of policy-making. His data reveal that teen childbearing is NOT the reason that many Americans have been trapped in poverty over the past three decades.
The United States, one of the richest nations in the world, has higher poverty rates than any advanced Western country other than the former Soviet Union. It also has higher rates of teen births, especially unwed teen births. Many policy-makers believe that the first situation is a direct result of the second. They argue that if we could only reduce teen births, and get young women who do give birth to marry, we could substantially reduce poverty and the need for public assistance programs, which are often thought to reinforce social inequality by giving incentives to young women to bear more children and become permanently dependent on government handouts.
However, a new body of research, including my own long-term study described below, reveals that this is not true. Beginning in 1991, teen childbearing declined steadily and steeply for 15 years in a row, as teens began to practice contraception more effectively. But the rapid fall in teenage childbearing that occurred from 1991 to 2005 did not improve the life prospects of disadvantaged youth as they entered adulthood. Socioeconomic inequality did decline in the boom years of the late 1990s, but with little effect on the fortunes of the poorest of the poor. And by 2001, poverty and income inequality were once more on the rise, reaching highs not seen in more than 30 years.
In 2006, the rate of teenage childbearing took a surprising turn upward, leading to widespread concern that we may be in for a new cycle of teen births, child poverty, and social disadvantage. That may be true, given current trends in the housing and financial markets. But if so, teenage births will not be the main cause.
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners.
Founded in 1996 and now based in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, the Council’s mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met. To fulfill that mission, the Council holds annual conferences, open to the public, and issues periodic briefing papers and fact sheets.Topics: Child Welfare / TANF & Public Assistance