New York City's "Think Being A Teen Parent Won't Cost You?" campaign aims to discourage teenagers from having babies by warning of the high costs that pregnancy can have both for adolescent parents and for their children. The ads are being widely denounced for "shaming and blaming" poor teen parents. "Its dismissive tone perpetuates hurtful stereotypes about teen parents and their children," declares City Councilwoman Annabel Palma, who herself was a teenage mother. The New York Coalition for Reproductive Justice has launched a "No Stigma, No Shame" campaign against the ads, declaring: "We fail as a society when we shame young people instead of teaching them what they need to know to make the best decisions about their lives." Even Planned Parenthood has piled on: "The latest NYC ad campaign creates stigma, hostility, and negative public opinions about teen pregnancy and parenthood rather than offering alternative aspirations for young people," Haydee Morales, a Planned Parenthood leader, argued in a press release. This from an organization that you might expect to favor messages that suggest that parenthood should be, well, planned.
So what exactly is being condemned? The city's Human Resources Administration has placed a series of advertisements on buses, subways, and bus shelters that feature unhappy looking infants with taglines reading, "Honestly Mom, chances are that he won't stay with you. What happens to me?," "Dad you'll be paying to support me for the next 20 years," "Got a good job, I cost thousands of dollars each year," "I'm twice as likely NOT to graduate from high school because you had me as a teen," and "If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98% chance of not being in poverty." You can certainly argue that the government should not be inserting itself into teens' reproductive decisions, and that these ads are of a piece with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's nanny-state tendencies. But as a matter of factual accuracy, all of these advertisements convey straightforward information about the likely consequences of teens having children.
The campaign is correct when it suggests that the fathers of children born to teen mothers tend not to stay with them: Nearly 80 percent of the dads do not marry the moms. And in 2008, another study in the Journal of Family Social Work reported, "At 36 months after giving birth, 60 percent of mothers were not living with or married to the fathers of their children." Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children at all stages of development, reports that while almost one-half of teen mothers who were unmarried at the time of their child's birth believed that the chances were good that they would marry their child's biological father, fewer than 8 percent had actually done so a year after their child's birth. And a 2007 study reported that only 27 percent of these children's absent fathers make formal payments to support the kids.
The kid in the advertisement asks, "What happens to me?" Many teen mothers do rear children who succeed in life, but being born to a teenage mom does dramatically increase the risks that you will fail to complete high school or earn a good living. Children of teen mothers are also two and a half times as likely to be incarcerated during their adolescence or early twenties as are the children of older mothers.
The campaign's message is also supported by research from the Brookings Institution that finds if young people follow three elementary rules—complete at least a high school education, work full time, and wait until age 21 and get married before having a baby—they have only a 2 percent chance of being in poverty. On the other hand, those who violate all three rules have a 77 percent chance of being in poverty. "Individual effort and good decisions about the big events in life are more important than government programs," concludes Brookings researcher Ronald Haskins. "Call it blaming the victim if you like, but decisions made by individuals are paramount in the fight to reduce poverty and increase opportunity in America."
What about the costs of rearing a child? For 2011—the most recent year for which it has done the calculations—the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy reported that the "annual child-rearing expenses per child for a middle-income, two-parent family ranged from $12,290 to $14,320, depending on the age of the child." The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy estimates that women who gave birth in their teenage years by their early thirties earn an average of just $11,000 per year. These low incomes should not be surprising, since only 38 percent of them have a high school diploma by age 22. In addition, 63 percent of teen mothers receive some type of public assistance within a year after their first child is born.
New York's campaign may not work, but researchers do know what helps reduce teen pregnancy: information. A 2008 study comparing no sex education, abstinence-only sex education and comprehensive sex education reported that comprehensive sex education was associated with a 50 percent lower risk of teen pregnancy. Among other things, most comprehensive sex ed programs teach kids about contraception.
There is good news: The U.S. teen pregnancy rate has been falling for the past couple of decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that the teen birth rate declined 9 percent from 2009 to 2010, reaching a historic low at 34.3 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 19. Overall, the teen birth rate has dropped 44 percent since 1991. The CDC further noted, "If the teen birth rates observed in 1991 had not declined through 2010 as they did, there would have been an estimated 3.4 million additional births to teens during 1992–2010." A report from Planned Parenthood's Guttmacher Institute found that this decline "can be linked almost exclusively to improvements in teens' contraceptive use." For example, the use of hormonal contraceptive methods like the pill increased between 2006 and 2010 among sexually active teens, from 37 percent to 47 percent. Some teens are evidently taking the abstinence message to heart as well: About 14 percent in the decline can be attributed to decreased sexual activity among teens.
Denouncing accurate information about the bad consequences of teen parenthood as stigmatizing ends up coddling the irresponsible. Teen parents already know all too well that what the campaign posters are saying is true; it's the teens who have not yet made the mistake of having babies before they can properly care for them that need to hear these facts of life.