How can American society dissuade its teen-age children from having children? Experts have debated that increasingly grave question throughout this decade without, until now, even the hint of a pragmatic answer. But research now under way offers the prospect of a deterrent. It indicates that for the first time it is practical to hold young males financially responsible for the children they father.
Contrary to popular belief, says Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, two-thirds of the fathers of these children are in their 20s or older, even though many of the mothers are only teen-agers.
Even more surprising, the research that he and colleague Paul N. Tramontozzi are conducting finds that the fathers have jobs.
They are among the ``working poor,'' Mr. Besharov concedes. But ``they do have regular incomes. They could afford to make modest, but not insubstantial'' child-support payments, perhaps approaching the national average of about $1,100 a year per child. (Study finds funding holds key to success of programs like workfare that seek to get people off welfare, Page 5.)
Fewer than one of every five mothers who have had a child out of wedlock and never married has obtained a court judgment requiring that the child's father make support payments. (By contrast, four-fifths of mothers who have been married have such awards.) In most cases the mothers have not even tried to seek such payments, largely because social workers aiding them considered it futile to try to obtain money from someone who, they assumed, could not pay. The new research may alter that view.
During the 1980s American society - and its government - has put more emphasis on forcing absent fathers to pay child support. As a result child-support payments to the mothers have been rising steadily. The great majority of these payments are from fathers who were married to the youngsters' mothers but are now divorced or separated. The new frontier, the latest research indicates, is among fathers who never married the mothers of their children.
In the short run, this would help these mothers, although in most cases it would be only a modest portion of their income. On average, child support makes up only 20 percent of the income of mothers who receive it, Mr. Tramontozzi says.
More important in the long run is the potential deterrent effect. ``No one doubts that there will be a deterrent impact,'' Besharov adds. ``If having a child is essentially free, there's no reason for a young fellow not to have a baby out of wedlock and let the taxpayer foot the bill,'' as is now occurring through welfare payments.
In recent years social scientists, politicians, and the public have been groping for a way to reverse the rise in the number of babies born to young, unmarried mothers - especially to teen-agers.
One of every four American babies is now born to unwed parents. Among some groups the percentage is even higher: Half of the black babies born in the US are to unmarried parents.
Welfare studies conclude that unmarried teen-age mothers are the most likely of all welfare recipients to remain dependent for years on the program's subsidies. Although their number is relatively modest, it is growing steadily.
Approximately half the money and resources of the largest US welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, is being spent on families long dependent on the program.