Teen Moms Won't Pay Price Alone

COMMENT

April 02, 1995|By BRAIN SULLAM

The Carroll County Board of Education wants to hear from the public before it decides whether to open a day-care center for teen mothers who attend Westminster High School. The message it is likely to hear is that the program is unsuitable for the public schools and should not be funded.

If the board heeds such advice, it will be making a big mistake.

No one advocates teen-age motherhood. Yet, it happens.

Last year, Carroll had 53 pregnant girls under the age of 17, according to George Giese, director of Carroll's Youth Services Bureau.

For these girls, it is too late to talk about what they should or should not have done. The discussion must turn to what they can do for themselves and their babies.

On the national level, teen mothers are targets for frustration over welfare. Encouraged by thinkers such as Charles Murray, ++ many people believe the welfare system encourages teen pregnancy and illegitimacy.

It is true that teen pregnancy looms large in the welfare issue. About half of the women collecting government assistance in 1993 first became mothers at the age of 19 or younger, according to federal statistics. Those same statistics show that that in 1993, only 1.2 percent of the women collecting Aid to Families with Dependent Children were mothers under 18. Thus, it is easy to see that a high correlation exists between becoming a parent as a teen-ager and collecting welfare at some point in one's life.

Carroll has a teen pregnancy problem. In 1991, the most current year for data on teen births in Maryland, Carroll's girls between the ages of 15 and 19 had 130 children, producing a birth rate of 31.6 births per 1,000 population. It was 50 percent higher than Howard's, whose teens produced 113 births for a rate of 20.2 births per 1,000 women.

One statistic rarely mentioned in discussions of welfare is that many of these mothers are high school dropouts. The reason they drop out is that they cannot find or afford day care.

About 73 percent of the girls in Carroll who become pregnant drop out. Without a high school diploma, they will remain at the bottom of the labor pool. They are more likely to be long-time recipients for government assistance and their children are more likely to be dropouts and welfare recipients when they become teen-agers.

Which returns us to the question of the day care center proposed at Westminster High.

Creating such a facility in a portable building will cost about $125,000. Some have already objected to the price tag as too steep. Others argue that the rest of us should not have to pay for the mistakes these girls made.

"It may be their problem, but it's also our problem," Mr. Giese said. "If these children don't get educated, it is going to cost us a lot."

Compared to the long-term costs of welfare and other social problems, the cost of day care is minimal. From a strictly economic standpoint, the community would be much better off paying a relatively small sum today rather than the much larger sum over the long run.

Providing infant day care for teen mothers does pay off. In Baltimore, Prince George's and Howard counties, the experience that if teen mothers can remain in school, they are less likely to have a second unmarried pregnancy. Their children are also likely to be more successful than children who are raised by high school dropouts.

The coalition of social service groups that is sponsoring this center will do more than provide day care. It also will teach parenting skills, vocational training and other support to lead the girls to become self-sufficient adults.

The center also proposes to reach out with parenting training to the men who impregnated these girls -- many of whom are in their 20s.

"Just providing day care would be a Band-aid," said Christy Lynch, who heads the coalition.

Some opponents of the center argue that its availability will encourage other teens to have babies.

In fact, the presence of these teen mothers in school will have the opposite effect. These girls will be living examples of the consequences of irresponsible sexual activity. Their school chums can see first-hand the burdens of having children. None of these teen mothers have time for the normal high school activities -- cheerleading, attending dances, participating in sports -- because they have a baby to care for.

Mr. Giese likes to point out that three elements keep people off welfare and out of prison -- a home, a job and a high school education. A high school education is the foundation. With that you can get more education and a job. With a job, you can provide a home.

"It's not real complicated," Mr. Giese said. "If you have all three elements, you have a 90 percent chance of succeeding in this society."

Come April 12, the school board should vote to implement this program. If it doesn't, it won't be just the teen moms who will pay for years to come.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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