Teen pregnancy. It’s something you don’t hear a lot about — until new statistics are announced and they’re moving in the wrong direction. But having children at an early age can have a terrible impact on mothers and their children for generations.
Teenagers who are pregnant are likely to drop out of school. That means they won’t be eligible for 90 percent of all jobs in the United States, since that vast (and growing) proportion requires a high school diploma or more. And if the mother does find a job, she will make $260,000 less, on average, over her lifetime.
In other words, teen pregnancy nearly always leads to poverty and all of the problems that come with it.
Let’s say the mother does stay in school and graduate; there are other complications as well. Because of the circumstances surrounding most teen pregnancies, both mother and child face all sorts of additional health risks — plus the possibility of social and emotional problems that could extend well into the future.
Teen pregnancy may not seem as threatening as homelessness or hunger, but it certainly can be.
Fortunately, there’s been a lot of success in helping local teens avoid pregnancy.
Carolyn Spivey, executive director of the Coalition for Families in Lee County, is quick to credit groups all across the community for helping teens avoid pregnancy and stay in school. She mentions Lee County Schools and initiatives school leaders have put in place over recent years. The YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs for providing enrichment activities after school. Church ministries of all kinds.
She even gives some credit to the creation of Southern Lee High School. With fewer students in any given school, it’s easier for girls to get involved in meaningful activities during the day. Spivey says research suggests that teen pregnancies are most likely to begin between 3 and 5 p.m. in the mother’s own home.
On the other hand, it’s hard to underestimate what the Coalition for Families has accomplished.
It created the TOP Club at four local schools, where students participate in a nationally accredited curriculum to reduce teen pregnancy. They perform 20 hours of community service each year, which forges strong connections between students and their community and has led to projects from school beautification to a video showing eighth-grade students what to expect when they arrive at high school. Club members even take college tours that help them understand the real opportunities they have in life.
Over a dozen years, no teen remaining active in the club has become pregnant, and various tests also show that the students have learned a lot along the way.
Then there’s the Adolescent Parenting Program, a separate outreach to help teens who already have a child. Through group meetings at school and one-on-one home visits, social workers help mothers develop solid parenting skills and finish school.
Has this been successful, too? Absolutely. No participant has had another pregnancy while a teenager, even though some mothers had their first child as early as age 14. All have graduated from high school. Many have moved on to higher education or military service.
Spivey focuses primarily on what the teen pregnancy outreach does for girls who need help. It shows them real opportunities, weaves them into the fabric of our community, helps them finish high school and gives them a good shot at a decent job. But if you ask, she’ll also tell you about the economic benefits to all of us. It costs about $900 per year to work with a teen — a small fraction of what it takes to provide social services for teen mothers and their children.
Back in 1989, before the Coalition for Families was created, 203 girls from age 14 to 19 became pregnant in Lee County. In 2011, according to the most-recent data, that number had dropped to 130. There’s still work to be done, but the progress is clear.
Jan Hayes is executive director of the United Way of Lee County.