NEW YORK — AS policymakers in Washington battle over the sticky subject of welfare reform, the issue of teen pregnancy has moved back into the political spotlight.
The adolescent pregnancy rate in the United States has long been the highest in the industrialized world. One million teenage women become pregnant in the US each year, and about half of them carry their babies to term. After declining steadily for two decades, the teen birth rate began climbing sharply in 1986; by 1991 it had reached its highest point in 20 years. In the latest reporting period (1992), the National Center for Health Statistics in Washington reported that teenage pregnancy had dropped b y 1 to 2 percent for 15-to-17-year-olds.
About 80 percent of teen mothers are from poor or low-income families; more than 20 percent give birth to a second child within two years of their first. Teenagers who become parents are more likely to stay poor. An estimated 53 percent of the funds dispersed by Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the most common form of welfare, go to families formed by a teenage birth. US taxpayers spend about $30 billion yearly to support families started by teen mothers.
While the monetary costs of too-early childbearing are measurable, the human costs often are not. Studies have concluded that pregnant teens and their children experience more severe health problems than do adult women. Children of adolescents are among the most disadvantaged populations of American society. Studies suggest that they are more likely to do poorly in school and have more social and behavioral problems than other children. They are also more likely to become teen parents themselves.
FOR the first time, the White House has proposed a national campaign against teen pregnancy as part of President Clinton's campaign pledge to ''end welfare as we know it.'' And Republican congressional leaders under House Speaker Newt Gingrich have stirred controversy with various proposals to end welfare benefits to single mothers under age 18 and remove ''disincentives'' for welfare mothers to work or get married. The message of the proposals is clear: If you have children before you are ready to supp ort them, the state will no longer support them for you.
But many educators, social workers, and others who work directly with pregnant and parenting adolescents say that although welfare reform may be necessary, it will not curb teen childbirth. The reason, they say, is that young women have children too early for reasons that are far more complex than simply wanting to receive welfare.
Joy Dryfoos, a researcher and author who has written extensively about teen pregnancy, says that the young women who occupy the bottom rungs of society's economic ladder often have children because they have little to motivate them not to. ''The bottom line,'' she says, ''is that there is a crisis in the inner city for many kids. Teen pregnancy is one of the consequences.''