For Every Teen Mother, There Has to Be a Father

Is shaming the children the answer?

Do the great conservative minds behind welfare reform really think that reviving the stigma of illegitimacy will shrink the huge number of babies born to unwed, prone-to-welfare mothers?

And do they believe that you can shame the parents without shaming the children?

Do they care?


Last week, my colleague Elizabeth Shogren reported out of Washington that the deep-thinking William Bennett “called on Americans to start using the term illegitimacy again so that a decision to have babies out of marriage would be considered ‘a serious social pathology.’ ”

“Illegitimacy is the surest road to poverty and social decay. And welfare subsidizes and sustains illegitimacy,” Bennett testified before a House subcommittee discussing welfare reform.

“Here’s ‘tough-love’ on a large scale: End welfare and young girls considering having a baby out of wedlock would face more deterrents, greater social stigma and more economic penalties arrayed against them if they have babies.”

Bennett has a partial point.


There is no question that the 30% of American children born each year to single mothers are starting life at a distinct disadvantage. The children are usually poor and they usually don’t have dads around. Lots of bad things, say the studies, flow from those stark facts--higher rates of poverty, crime, drug abuse and truancy, among other ills.

But it’s hard to see how reintroducing the notion that children born out of wedlock are bastards --let’s face it, that’s what they’ll be called--will solve the problem.

The deep thinkers have latched on to an idea that makes for great quotes, great headlines. Passing off a stigma as a solution sounds good to a nation hungry for answers to intractable problems.

But tell me: When has a red herring ever made a satisfying meal?



In the long run, the illegitimacy issue is a rhetorical trap, a side track, and people who are for humane welfare reform should not bite. What is the opposing argument? That the rights of teen-age girls to engage in sex without protection, to bear children, to suck the taxpayers dry should be defended? Anyone who has spent time with teen mothers struggling to forge bright futures out of bleak lives, who are full of self-blame and self-loathing anyway, will not rush to defend their right to keep bearing babies.

The issue is not how to reduce out-of-wedlock births by instilling shame, but how to reverse the social trends that have proven to be bad news for kids. How do we discourage pregnancy among our teen-agers? How do we instill in the fathers a sense of responsibility for their children? How do we give people the tools to escape poverty?

At the congressional hearings where Bennett held forth, some single mothers from Massachusetts asked in vain to be heard. What they wanted to do, they said later, was add a dose of reality. They wanted to talk about larger economic solutions to the problems of single parenting and poverty--universal health care, universal affordable child care, affordable housing, a livable minimum wage.


They wanted to know why the rhetoric focused so heavily on mothers who receive welfare. They wanted to know, as one put it, “Why no one looks at the fathers.”

Actually, when it comes to teen pregnancy, someone has.


Mike Males is a doctoral student in social ecology at UC Irvine who studies adolescence, and who suggests that an underlying cause of teen pregnancy is adult men. Recently, he has been contacted by a Republican congressman from Oklahoma and Planned Parenthood of New Jersey about his research, which means his research will probably generate headlines as this debate heats up.


In 1993, Males says, about 47,000 school-aged girls in California gave birth, and their kids had two kinds of fathers: school-aged and older. School-aged boys, or peers, accounted for only 29% of the births, while adult men accounted for the other 71%.

As Males points out, this means that the teen-mother problem is also an adult-male problem.

“When you look at junior high births, you have to ask, ‘What are post-school adult men, six to seven years older, doing fathering children with junior high girls?’ There has to be more attention paid to the exploitation issue. And no one has ever studied these men. This issue is totally ignored. This whole thing of demonizing teen motherhood really bothers me. I mean, you have to look at the circumstances. They have adult male behavior problem written all over them.

“We have had six First Ladies in this country who were teen mothers,” Males says, “from Elizabeth Monroe to Rosalynn Carter. So the issue is not just age, it is a lack of support and poverty and abuse, and lack of the usually adult male taking responsibility for the child.”


Stigmatizing children who are born out of wedlock is hardly the solution.

But it sure makes for great sound bites.

* Robin Abcarian’s column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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