Counting the costs

September 25, 1990

In Baltimore, teen pregnancy is becoming old news, which makes it easy to forget the high cost of children having children. In 1988 alone, Baltimore city saw more than 1,400 babies born to mothers under 18 years of age. Some of the costs of adolescent motherhood are hard to quantify -- the personal toll that results from dropping out of school, or the social costs as more of these adolescents face stunted futures for themselves and their children, or even the costs to the extended family of the teen-aged parent. But it is possible to estimate the costs to the taxpayer of these young, vulnerable and rarely self-sufficient families, and a study from the Center for Population Options has done just that.

Last year, according to this report, the federal government spent $21.5 billion to support teen-aged mothers and their children. In Baltimore city alone, the cost was $246 million. Delaying childbirth until the mother was 20 would save vast sums at all levels of government. It would also alleviate some of the human suffering caused by the strain of dysfunctional families headed by young people unprepared for parenthood.

Counting the costs of teen-aged pregnancy is one thing; finding a way to prevent it is another. Caroline County recently announced a program that will pay adolescent girls $1 a day not to get pregnant. That gimmick, which has been tried successfully elsewhere, depends not so much on the negligible amount of money involved as on the simple idea of giving girls a reason not to get pregnant -- something our society seems to have lost the ability to do. Compared to five other industrialized nations, the United States has a far higher teen-aged birthrate, even though this country provides less public assistance to families.

There are, however, good programs to prevent teen-aged pregnancies, and Maryland's Family Support Centers are a shining example. But it's important to remember that the phenomenon of children having children reflects the larger problem of a country in which too many young people seem to lack the will to build a self-sufficient life, or the confidence that it can be done.

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