Children Do Better When They're Not Raised By Children

Not too long ago, the national and Memphis news turned their lens on pregnant teens in Memphis. Every year, one in six births in Shelby County is to a mother in her teens. Between 1991 and 2002, the teen birth rate for girls aged 15-19 had declined 27 percent in Tennessee. According to a "What If" analysis, if the teen birth rate had not improved in the state:

  • 24,000 additional children (under age 18) in the state would have been born to teen mothers
  • 8 percent more of our children would live in poverty
  • 11 percent more children would live in single parent households.

What difference does teen parenting make for children and for our community?

As this issue of Research to Policy makes clear, teen childbearing is a critical issue in the United States. Despite impressive declines in teen birth rates since 1991, the U.S. still has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. In Tennessee, it is estimated that teen parenthood cost taxpayers at least $181 million annually. Most of these costs are associated with negative consequences for the children born to teens. These include public health care (TnCare and CHIP), child welfare, incarceration, and lost tax revenue, due to decreased earnings and spending.

According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, teen parenthood is linked to many negative consequences for mothers, fathers, and their children. Compared to those who delay childbearing, teen mothers are more likely to drop out of school, remain unmarried, and live in poverty. Their children are more likely to be born at low birth weight, grow up poor, live in single-parent households, experience abuse and neglect, and enter the child welfare system. Daughters of teen mothers are more likely to become teen parents themselves and sons of teen parents are more likely  to be incarcerated.

In 2006, the median age at first birth for all mothers in the U.S. was 25. Meanwhile, minority mothers and unmarried mothers are likely to become parents at earlier ages. The average age of first-time unmarried mothers in Shelby County is 21; and the average income of these young women is $12,858, a poverty-level wage.

What does the future hold for these children?

Our wish would be that every child in our community grows up in a loving and nurturing home and family; that they develop to their full capacity and reach school ready to learn; that they thrive academically; finish high school and go on to college; find jobs that are fulfilling and pay a decent wage; and that they can count on having happy, healthy and productive adulthoods.

But the odds are stacked against too many of our children.

Birth to Teen-Parents Means Extra Risks

From the fields of early childhood development, brain science, education and public policy, we know that babies born to teen-agers are at risk for many negative outcomes. The majority of children born to teen mothers will spend their early childhoods in poverty. An early childhood in poverty means higher levels of turmoil, disruption and chaos.

Young families in poverty simply have fewer resources – leaving them with less safe and stable housing, less healthy food, less reliable transportation, and fewer books and toys to give their children. In Memphis, young families in poverty are uprooted frequently – often five or six times before their children reach kindergarten – compared to only once or twice for middle-class families.

Children born into these families are likely to develop smaller vocabularies than middle class children. A three-year-old raised in a family on welfare typically has a vocabulary a third the size of a three-year-old raised by professional parents. Early deficits in language development, in turn, leave these kids will be far behind their middle-class peers when they reach kindergarten. Differences in school readiness, in turn, become differences in academic achievement. Half of children born into poverty are unlikely to finish high school.

Education is the most powerful birth control

In Shelby County, it isn’t until age 24 that a first-time single mother is likely to be above the poverty line. There are good reasons why the mid-twenties are a period of life in which women begin to earn enough money to support themselves and a child. By this age, women are much more likely to have finished school and to have found a steady job. The relationship between a woman’s education and the timing of her first birth is important: Women who parent young are much less likely to finish school. On the other hand, women who are determined to go to college are much more likely to put off starting a family. In other words: education (and the desire for more) is a powerful prophylactic.

Moving toward a better future for young children and families in Memphis

Teen pregnancy and child-bearing have significant economic and social costs. Further reducing teen pregnancy will benefit both national and state economies and will lead to improvements in the education, health, and social prospects of future generations of young people.

The well-being of children in our community requires that we begin to make the connections between a family's access to fundamental resources, a child's protection from risk factors in their earliest years, and the implications of early childhood development for later life outcomes.

Children in Memphis will do better when their parents complete the education needed to earn a living wage. In Memphis, large numbers of low-income women begin parenting before they finish school, before they can count on having an employed partner, and before they find a living wage job. For these women, the complications of raising children derail dreams of completing their educations and becoming financially stable.

So what’s the solution?

Young women in our community will be more likely to delay parenting when they see realistic reasons to do so: when their friends who wait to start a family until they finish school have more secure and fulfilled lives, better paying jobs that helps them afford a home and decent transportation, or a loving marriage that improves their family’s quality of life.

Are these goals realistic for young women in Shelby County? If not, then young women are left with few reasons to delay motherhood, and our community is left with another generation of children raising children, undermining the well-being and life prospects of both. To learn more about what works when it comes to preventing teen pregnancy and parenting, see the recent column by Rebecca Terrell in the Commercial-Appeal.