Welfare reform is once again in play. President Clinton's veto of the budget reconciliation bill, which included welfare reform, and his desire to work with Congress to craft a welfare bill more to his liking, reopen some of the knottiest issues in the United States today.
Among the most controversial is the question of what role welfare plays in encouraging teenage pregnancy and childbearing. About one-half of women on welfare were teens when they had their first child. In general, teenage mothers are much less likely than their childless peers to complete high school and much more likely to need long-term support.
Does this mean welfare promotes teen pregnancy? Those who say yes argue you get more of what you subsidize. But if this were the case, one would expect teen birth rates to have declined in recent years, as welfare benefits have shrunk. Instead, births to teenagers have increased. The argument that welfare encourages teen births also suggests that European countries, which offer more generous benefits than the US, should have higher rates of teenage childbirths. Yet they don't.
So if welfare doesn't promote teen pregnancy, what does? Overwhelmingly, evidence points to four underlying factors, none of which are addressed by cutting welfare to teenage parents. These factors are: 1) early school failure, 2) early behavior problems, 3) poverty, and 4) family dysfunction. Study after study finds a strong link between these four conditions and early sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, and adolescent parenthood.
As early as elementary school, children who have trouble in school often become frustrated and exhibit behavior problems. As school success becomes less attainable, they may see little value in playing by the rules that help other students get ahead. Over time, some grow susceptible to dangerous influences in their neighborhoods and schools and to negative messages in the news media and popular culture. Too often, the results are drug and alcohol use, violence, and early and unprotected sex, which can lead to teen pregnancy.
Poor children, in particular, may feel less hopeful about the future and may therefore see less reason than more-affluent children to delay childbearing until after marriage - or at least until they are financially able to support a child. Data on teen pregnancy and childbearing consistently show that adolescents in poor families and communities tend to initiate sexual intercourse at a younger age, to use contraceptives less effectively, and to have more unintended pregnancies.
Finally, children in dysfunctional families are at higher risk of early pregnancy. Their parents often fail to provide adequate supervision, to communicate effectively with their children, to teach strong values, and to educate them about how and why to delay sex and parenthood. Most dramatically, severely dysfunctional families may fail to protect their daughters from unwanted sexual advances. Increasingly, studies indicate many girls' initial sexual experiences are coercive. A majority of girls whose first sexual experiences occurred before age 15 report that these incidents were not voluntary.
As the nation turns again to the difficult question of how to discourage welfare dependency, these findings have at least two important implications. First, cutting welfare to teenage parents will probably do little to discourage teen sex, pregnancy, and childbearing. Second, it may have the perverse and unintended consequence of encouraging some of the conditions research shows are associated with teen pregnancy - principally poverty and family dysfunction.
What, then, can we do to discourage long-term welfare dependency? Research suggests a very different set of proposals than those under discussion.
First, start early, to ensure that children enter school with the skills they need to succeed. Second, support parents in the tough job of raising and protecting their children. Third, focus on males as well as females, including men in their 20s, since they are the sexual partners of a large proportion of teenage girls. Fourth, encourage abstinence, but also provide contraceptive information to kids who do have sex. (Research indicates that the most effective sex education programs combine the teaching of abstinence with information on contraception.) Most important, invest time and resources in teens so they will perceive opportunities for themselves and realize the value of staying in school and building a positive future.
Cutting welfare benefits to teen mothers may "end welfare as we know it," but it won't end the underlying problem of teenage pregnancy and childbearing. Meeting that challenge will require a broader and more sustained effort.