Children having children is `not just somebody else's problem'

``Will your child learn to multiply before she learns to subtract?'' That question is now appearing on buses and commuter trains in eight major United States cities as part of an advertising campaign designed to focus attention on the problem of teen-age pregnancy.

The campaign, running in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Washington, is sponsored by the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund (CDF), a nonprofit organization whose aim is to champion the rights of children.

A second advertisement shows a teen mother holding her child; the copy reads. ``The one on the left [the child] will finish high school before the one on the right.''

The campaign was developed with volunteer help from the Minneapolis advertising agency of Fallon McElligott Rice and documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. It also features 30- and 60-second television public-service announcements.

A box labeled ``Home Pregnancy Test'' is pictured in another ad with the headline: ``Last year 125,000 junior high students flunked this simple test.'' About a million and a quarter teen-age girls become pregnant every year -- just under half of them become mothers. An estimated 400,000 have abortions.

The five-year campaign is targeted at all segments of society, but CDF president Marion Wright Edelman says the goal of the initial phase is to alert adults. ``We want adults to understand that this is a problem that affects black and white, their kid, their grand kid, their neighbor kid, church kid -- so that they begin to see it's not just somebody else's problem.'' She adds, ``It's a national problem.''

A study conducted by the Center for Population Options estimates that taxpayers spent $16.5 billion last year in welfare costs to support the families started by teen-age parents. Most of the teen mothers will be left to raise their children alone. Frequently, teen-age mothers have to drop out of school, and it is increasingly difficult for them to support themselves and their babies.

Mrs. Edelman describes the situation as a poverty mill. ``We can no longer avoid this issue because the costs are too great -- for young people, for our communities, and for us as taxpayers,'' she says.

A congressional report released last month shows most citys and states are ill-equipped to address effectively the challenge of teen-age pregnancy.

CDF isn't advocating a particular approach for communities to deal with the problem. The organization wants to encourage adults to find out what, if anything, is being done in their communities.

Tennis star Arthur Ashe, co-chairman of CDF's Media Advisory Panel, says the role models of many adolescents set bad examples. He notes a number of young movie stars and athletes who become parents out of wedlock. Both Ashe and Edelman say teen-agers need to develop self-esteem, and they stress the importance of adult support.

``The core of it all is making young people feel good about themselves -- high self-esteem,'' says Edelman. ``A sense of competence, a sense that they're going some place, a sense that they've got something to contribute, a sense that they're needed, a sense that there's a future out there is critical. We can give young people all the family planning we want, or all the sex education they want, but if they don't feel hope or feel they've got something to lose I don't think we're ultimately going to be successful.''

She isn't expecting immediate results, but Edelman hopes that by the time the five-year campaign is over, no American will have missed hearing about the problems of teen-age pregnancy. ``I think everyone has a role to play,'' she says. ``Anyone who can love, can reach out and help a teen . . . we've just got to -- as a society -- reach out to our kids. They just want to know somebody cares.''

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