Support for teenage mothers should focus on poverty and education

Photo: miguelb. Creative Commons.

As in other developed countries, teenage pregnancy is becoming less common in the USA, where the rate of births to teenage mothers has dropped by half since 1995. But for many teenagers who do become pregnant, life is getting tougher. Access to government benefits is decreasing and poor families’ incomes are falling. And precisely because teenage pregnancy is becoming less common, the danger that teenage mothers will be isolated and stigmatised is increasing.

Dr Stefanie Mollborn from the University of Colorado Boulder recently published a review of research on US teenage mothers.

The life outcomes of young mothers and their children are compromised, a fact that’s driven at least as much by the disadvantages these mothers experience before their pregnancy as by teen parenthood itself. Persistent socioeconomic disadvantage over time means children of teenage mothers lose ground, even if their parents are making some progress. This can lead to an intergenerational cycle of disadvantage.

The effects of teenage pregnancy depend on particular circumstances. For example, outcomes can depend on what happens in the relationship between the teenage mother and the father of her child. The strength of family and community support also makes a substantial difference. The impact on expected education and earning outcomes is particularly negative for young women whose preexisting characteristics made them less likely to become pregnant.

Not all the consequences of teenage pregnancy are negative. Becoming a mother can motivate some young women to succeed, and some young women consider being a carer to be a success in itself. The stigma and obstacles that stand in the way can defeat some mothers, but others say they have grown stronger in the face of them. On average, though, research suggests that teenage mothers have poorer educational outcomes than they would have had if they had not become pregnant.

Mollborn concludes that programmes tackling teenage pregnancy should focus on the wider disadvantages that their families typically face—neighbourhood and family poverty, exposure to violence, risk and inequality, and low-quality education. Such policies could help prevent teen pregnancy as well as support teenage mothers.

Mollborn S (2016), Teenage mothers today: what we know and how it matters, Child Development Perspectives