Administration to battle teen-age pregnancy

June 10, 1994|By New York Times

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has settled on a campaign against teen-age pregnancy that includes new restrictions on welfare payments, $400 million in grants to schools and neighborhoods over five years, and the use of the president's bully pulpit to promote responsible behavior.

Officials who outlined the plan said three-quarters of the grant money would go to a thousand needy schools, to be used for education and counseling programs. While there will be much local flexibility, the programs may be loosely patterned after an Atlanta model that promotes both abstinence and contraception and uses older students as mentors.

The remainder of the money would be used to create about a half-dozen larger, experimental programs to improve opportunities in distressed neighborhoods. Those programs could provide teen-agers with services as diverse as family-planning clinics and recreational activities, such as midnight basketball leagues.

The strategy was developed as part of President Clinton's plan to overhaul the welfare system, which he is expected to announce as early as next week. The entire package must go before Congress, where vigorous debate is expected over the welfare provisions, and passage seems unlikely this year.

Mr. Clinton wants to expand training opportunities for welfare recipients but then require those who are still unemployed after two years to enroll in a work program. He hopes that the time limit will make welfare less attractive and so discourage teen-agers from having children they cannot support.

But this could mean that the federal government still might have to support some families as long as their minor children lived at home.

States would be given the option of evaluating whether recipients who have held subsidized jobs for two years had made good-faith efforts to obtain unsubsidized jobs.

The number of children being born to unwed teen-agers is increasingly a source of national concern. But while Mr. Clinton is putting more rhetoric and money behind the issue than previous presidents, it is unclear whether the government has the answers in hand.

Mr. Clinton also would require unwed mothers younger than 18 to continue to live at home, and he would raise the financial penalties on those who did not seek education and training. He would also try to discourage irresponsible sexual behavior by young men by increasing efforts to collect child-support payments.

Officials said the legislative changes would be accompanied by a public campaign that urges teen-agers to avoid pregnancy and stay in school. The campaign would include speeches by Mr. Clinton and Cabinet members and might be supplemented by the work of a new, nonprofit foundation.

Officials from many government agencies spent more than a year putting the plan together, often disagreeing on whether two decades of previous experiments could offer more than vague clues about how to proceed. The decision to spend $400 million over five years takes a middle ground between settling for

further experiments and proclaiming on a nationwide solution.

The secretary of health and human services, Donna E. Shalala, gave an optimistic reading of the research on past programs. "We have had some successful demonstrations in this country," she said. "What they've told us is that you have to do a lot of things, not a single thing."

But an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, Rebecca Maynard, took a dimmer view, noting that some previous programs had even led to higher pregnancy rates.

"We really don't know what to do," said Ms. Maynard, who served as a consultant to the officials drafting the plan. "We've got some promising new ideas, but they're still ideas. They haven't been tested."

Teen-age pregnancy is the most troubling end of a larger national problem: the rising incidence of out-of-wedlock births at all ages. Single-parent families are much more likely than those headed by two parents to experience poverty and associated traumas, such as crime or drug abuse.

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