New urgency for early-20s single moms

America made teen pregnancy prevention a national priority, and progress on this front is remarkable. However, increasingly, women are avoiding pregnancy as teens, only to become single mothers in their early 20s. Often their entry into parenthood is just as ill-prepared and perilous to child well-being, yet the policy response is far less adequate.

In 1995, President Clinton pronounced teen pregnancy an epidemic, and, following his call for action, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy was formed. Congress made teen pregnancy prevention a focus of welfare reform in 1996, and President Bush furthered this commitment with policies emphasizing sexual abstinence and family values.

Prevention efforts now extend to both men and women, and to approaches such as media campaigns, mentoring, youth development, and relationship skills. Although the appropriate mix of abstinence, contraception, and other services remains strongly debated, teen childbearing clearly has fallen dramatically since its reduction became a national priority – by 33 percent since 1991 – and all efforts likely played some role.

However, society is trading one set of at-risk parents for another. In 2003, more than 1.4 million children were born to single mothers, a record 36 percent. Roughly 40 percent of those births were to single mothers in their early 20s – young adults – and about three-quarters of these young single mothers had only a high school education or less.

Childbearing by singles has grown by over one-quarter since 1990, and young adults account for roughly 60 percent of this increase.

Reducing teen childbearing must remain a national priority, with nearly 415,000 births annually (42 per 1,000 teen women); however, births to young, single adults surpass even "epidemic" levels of teen childbearing, with 550,000 births annually (71 per 1,000 single women ages 20-24).

This new epidemic fails to register as a national priority even though research shows that nearly half the children of single mothers live in poverty (four times the rate for children with married parents), and their rates of substance abuse, male incarceration, and teen pregnancy are two to three times greater.

Unmarried, cohabiting mothers do not fare much better. They are twice as likely to break up within five years compared with married mothers, and their children have more than twice the poverty rate, poorer school and behavioral outcomes, and dramatically higher exposure to abuse than children with married parents.

This probably follows from young women's frequently disconnected entry into parenthood. Low-income single mothers portrayed in Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas's groundbreaking book, "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage," describe many of their pregnancies as neither intended nor prevented. Motherhood is a natural part of their early 20s, a focal point that will bring love and purpose to their lives.

But because they often see the men fathering their children as unfit or even dangerous, they reserve marriage as a lofty goal for later life. Many enter motherhood with high aspirations for their children and a belief that their love will overcome all serious obstacles, but soon replace such hopes with a quest for basic survival, accepting that their children may follow the same paths into single parenthood, drugs, and incarceration, and redefining success to mean loving their children no matter what.

Public policy largely overlooks single childbearing among young adults, citing a lack of programmatic approaches. However, there are clear steps within our grasp. Declining trends in the accessibility of contraceptive services must be reversed. Recently reported findings from the Alan Guttmacher Institute ("Unintended Pregnancies Rise for Poor Women" and "Unintended Pregnancy Linked to State Funding Cuts") indicate that 33 states made it more difficult or more expensive for poor women to obtain contraceptive services between 1994 and 2001, corresponding to a 30 percent increase in unintended pregnancies among poor women during the same period. Title X, the only public funding going directly to family-planning clinics, has fallen by two-thirds since 1980.

However, our vision of family planning for young adults must extend beyond simply providing contraceptives. It must address underlying changes in behaviors and attitudes toward parenthood. Innovations are needed that reach young adults effectively, focus on the value of stable two-parent families and the risks to children raised outside of that structure, and impart a greater sense of responsibility. What's needed most is the same sense of national priority and urgency that accompanied efforts to prevent teen pregnancy.

Without greater attention focused on the pathways into parenthood, society's important efforts to help bring parents into healthy marriages, to help parents support their families through work, and to help keep children from falling through the cracks will continue to be undermined.

Kelleen Kaye is a First Focus Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. Prior to that she was a senior analyst in the Office of the Secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, where she spent 12 years working on issues related to family well-being.

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