Teen Sex and Poverty Are Inextricably Linked

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Out-of-wedlock pregnancy has long been a sure route for high school girls to drop out of school and end up in poverty. Likewise, the far left has long considered that the solutions to teen pregnancy are (in order of preference): (1) school-based sex education and condom distribution, (2) federally funded abortion-on-demand, and (3) welfare benefits as a substitute for a husband and father.

Proving the axiom that we get more of what we pay for in terms of public policies based on the left’s solutions, the nation saw dramatic increases in teen pregnancies, a proliferation of federal grants to sex-ed providers, skyrocketing abortion rates, and burdensome taxes as the welfare rolls expanded. A whole industry developed to provide a rationale for the existence of poverty and to demand generous government income assistance (cash, food stamps, housing and medical care) for those mired in dependency.

In fact, poverty is still considered a cause of teen childbearing among those who argue that young girls without any hope for a future find emotional compensation through having a child. Those same experts admit that dropping out of high school and having a baby means more poverty, particularly among the “underclass” in black inner-city communities. The vicious cycle of poverty, say the leftist experts, is exacerbated by limited job opportunities for young black men. Further, they argue, poverty results from racial discrimination combined with the perils of easy money from dealing drugs. These arguments constitute the prevailing indisputable “truth” among many of the experts who study poverty.

Experience, however, has shown that the relationship between unwed teen pregnancy and poverty is a lot more complicated than the scenarios developed by the left. Moreover, government-funded abortion and income assistance have not broken the vicious cycle between unwed childbearing and poverty.

Two things stand out in the most recent trends in the poverty rate of black children and the unwed-teen birth rate for black females aged 15-19. First, it is clear that, contrary to the old conventional (read liberal) wisdom, the trends in poverty and unwed childbearing have often moved in opposite directions. If poverty were the dominant cause of unwed childbearing, we would expect to see the two trends move together. Second, since 1991 we have witnessed an unprecedented decrease in black unwed-teen childbearing: In 1991 the unwed birthrate for blacks was almost 108 per thousand, but by 2003 the rate had dropped to 62 per thousand.

While these trends repudiate the liberal axioms, another fact deals a death blow to liberal policy. The 42 percent drop in black unwed-teen childbearing did not occur because of an increase in the availability of abortions. Instead, to the dismay of Planned Parenthood, the number of abortion providers has been declining.

The facts behind the decline in the unwed-black-teen birthrate are completely contrary to the expectations of liberals; the Centers for Disease Control reported, “During 1991-2001, the percentage of U.S. high school students who ever had sexual intercourse and the percentage who had multiple sex partners decreased.” For black female teens, the percent ever having sexual intercourse dropped from 81 percent in 1991 to 61 percent in 2001, and the percent currently sexually active declined from 59 percent in 1991 to 47 percent in 2001. With sexual activity of teens decreasing, both the abortion rate and the unwed-teen birthrate have decreased.

Still, some die-hards persist in claiming that the abstinence message of self-control is unrealistic.

Along with the decline in the unwed-black-teen birthrate, the growth in the number of black female-headed households leveled off trends that heretofore had persisted for more than 20 years (the number of black female-headed families with children was the same in 2004 as it was in 1993). All during the 1970s and 1980s, the poverty rate of these single-mother households hovered around 60 percent, but with the sharp reductions in the unwed-black-teen birthrate in the 1990s, their poverty rate declined for 10 years to a historic low of less than 41 percent in 2001. Since the onset of the recession in 2001, the single-mother poverty rate has made a modest increase of only 2.6 percentage points.

As it turns out, it is the worldview of the liberals, progressives, feminists and welfare advocates that has proved to be unrealistic.

The history of the 1970s and 1980s clearly contradicts the notion that there could ever be enough abortions and welfare benefits to counter the snowballing effects of irresponsible sexual behavior. As the message of abstinence took hold, the tide began to change. Add to that changing tide the “realistic” 1996 welfare policy reforms, which ended public assistance as an entitlement and made it a temporary lifeboat rather than a permanent lifestyle.

When welfare benefits were limited to five years at a maximum (two years in many states), and when a child conceived during a welfare spell no longer meant a larger welfare check, the rolls declined by 60 percent. Notice, too, that unwed-black teens’ share of all unwed-black births trended downward with the adoption of welfare reform in 1996.

The expectation of and demand for responsible behavior as opposed to the old liberal ideas that people are victims helplessly at the mercy of their environment has brought a new day of hope to the lives of millions. With that hope has come greater personal responsibility and progress; despite the recession of the opening days of this decade, black child poverty is lower today than it ever was during the heyday of liberal social welfare policy in the 1970s and 1980s, and poor black children are a smaller percentage of all poor children than ever before.

With the rebirth of the American creed of personal responsibility and self-reliance, millions in the so-called “underclass” millions of those written off by liberals as hopelessly in need of a government dole have found jobs and are recovering the American dream of independence and self-respect. A true “realistic” worldview one that sees us all as endowed by our Creator with the possibility of choosing what is right and good has produced a hope for a new future for all those previously thought trapped by poverty.

Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse is Senior Fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute. Click here to see the graphs in her Data Digest that illustrate the trends and information in this article.

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