Investing in girls

June 09, 1994

Baltimore's new partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development won't bring the city new federal dollars; the agency is restricted by law to funding programs in other countries. But it can offer commodities almost as valuable -- new ideas and a fresh perspective on efforts to improve the lives of poor people here at home.

One idea that has gained currency in development circles in recent years needs much more attention in cities like Baltimore: One of the most successful ways of improving living standards is to focus on the education and well-being of girls in the crucial years after infancy and before motherhood. Study after study has shown that the best indicator of the health of a child anywhere in the world is the education of the mother.

Demographers also note that the education of girls is the single most important factor in reducing rapid population growth and raising a family's living standards. Investing in girls improves the lives of entire families, while efforts that target boys are less likely to have as broad an effect.

That lesson has not yet been learned here at home. More often than not, the notion of "at-risk youth" focuses on boys and overlooks the needs of girls. That's a shortsighted approach. A teen-aged girl who gives birth is only half as likely to finish high school than a girl who postpones childbearing. It's hard for a young mother to support a family alone. But without an education, her chances of being able to support her family grow even slimmer, increasing the chances that her babies will suffer all the ill effects that poverty can visit upon childhood. The Children's Defense Fund says that between 1973 and 1986 the median earnings of family heads younger than 25 fell from $15,049 to $6,000 in constant dollars. Who's filling the gap? A study by the Center for Population Options found that in 1990 the government spent more than $25 billion for social, health and welfare services to families begun by teen-age mothers, an increase of $3.5 billion over 1989.

Teen-aged pregnancy gets a lot of attention, and deservedly so, but it's not the only disturbing trend among American girls. Crime, especially violent crime, is thought of as a male problem, but recent statistics suggest that may be an outdated notion.

FBI reports show that between 1983 and 1992, the increase in the number of girls arrested for violent crimes increased by 83 percent, compared to a 54 percent rise for adolescent boys. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that almost one in five girls from ages 12 to 17 drinks alcohol regularly. Girls also try to kill themselves at a higher rate than boys, although they succeed less often.

The same trends and temptations that can make boyhood a rocky prelude to a troubled life pose equally ominous threats to girls. Policies and programs concerned with helping young people grow into responsible, self-sufficient, law-abiding adults should address the needs of both.

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