In 2013, posters of distraught babies appeared in New York City’s subways and bus stops. “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen,” read one, featuring a tearful curly-haired boy. The provocative public health campaign faced an immediate backlash. Critics said it was more about assigning blame than helping teens avoid pregnancy. Mary Erdmans and Timothy Black, Case Western Reserve University sociologists who at the time were wrapping up a years-long study of teen pregnancy, had the same response.
“What if you’re a young mother, who’s most likely taking mass transportation, standing there with your child and looking at these posters?” Erdmans says. “This was a shaming campaign.”
At a press conference announcing the campaign, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the goal was to make “very clear to young people that there’s a lot at stake when it comes to deciding to raise a child.” But some of the posters did more than that: They implied that by giving birth before the age of 20, mothers were condemning their children to poverty. Erdmans and Black, along with many of the campaign’s other critics, say the causal arrow actually runs in the opposite direction. Poverty and related forms of disadvantage can lead to teen pregnancy, not the other way around.
The sociologists provide compelling evidence for this view in On Becoming a Teen Mom: Life Before Pregnancy, this year’s winner of the Betty and Alfred McClung Lee Book Award of the Association for Humanist Sociology. As the title indicates, Erdmans and Black explore the early lives of teen mothers, shifting the focus from the concerns of previous studies.
“Most of the research on teen mothers has looked at the consequences of having a child when young,” Erdmans explains. “What hadn’t been done was, ‘What did their lives look like before they became teen mothers?’”
The book is the culmination of years of qualitative research involving 108 teen mothers in Connecticut. The mothers were participants in a home visitation program for first-time mothers of any age who were deemed most likely to need the help. Thus, Erdmans and Black write, their subjects were a sample of a “disadvantaged population—but then, so are most teen mothers.”
The researchers and their team of trained interviewers spoke with each mother for two to four hours, on topics ranging from family tragedies to life as an immigrant. Practicing what Erdmans and Black call “emergent sociology,” they set out to elicit each mom’s life story, in her own words, by asking open-ended questions. “You’re actually listening to what people have to say, and it’s from listening to them that you find out what’s important, what needs to be written, what needs to be understood,” Erdmans says.
“We had over 10,000 pages of transcripts,” Black adds, “so the analysis was quite an undertaking.”
The moms in the study are part of a waning phenomenon. Teen birth rates in this country have been declining for decades. They are half what they were in 1991, and a third what they were at their peak in 1957. The year 2010 saw the lowest number on record. Erdmans attributes this decline to increased contraceptive use and improvements in contraceptive methods since the late 1990s. (It is not the case that teen birth rates have fallen because of abortion; in fact, the abortion rate also decreased during this period.) Black adds that caring adults who provide support and guidance to teens have helped reduce the numbers of unintended pregnancies. “We need to give credit to the parents and grandparents, community workers and social workers and home visitation workers, teachers and doctors who are dealing with these issues,” he says.
Unfortunately, research also shows that the risk of becoming a teen mom has not changed for adolescents experiencing the greatest social and economic disadvantage. “This suggests that we need to deal with the sources of disadvantage if we want to further reduce the teen birth rate,” Erdmans explains.
Yet our society still focuses chiefly on trying to persuade teens not to get pregnant, the authors say. States allocate funding to anti-teen pregnancy programs even in times of fiscal crisis, in part because politicians see teen births as contributing to unemployment, high incarceration rates and low academic achievement. Teen moms are widely thought to be “the transmission belt that drives the cycle of poverty,” as political scientist Adolph Reed notes in an essay quoted in the book.
Erdmans and Black’s research builds on the work of other sociologists who have challenged what they regard as the scapegoating of teen moms. “We’re trying to debunk the notion that teen motherhood is the problem,” Black says.
For example, their data challenges the widespread belief that having babies causes teens to drop out of school. This belief is one of the main reasons teen motherhood is considered a social problem. But Erdmans and Black found that having a baby had little effect on the academic trajectory of the teen moms in their study. Those who were doing well in school before having a baby generally stayed in school. And those who didn’t finish high school had already dropped out or were failing before having the baby.
“Dropping out of school is correlated more with economic disadvantage than it is with having a child when you’re young,” Erdmans says. She notes that many of the teen moms in the study had attended failing schools in poor neighborhoods—schools whose overall dropout rates were very high. Often, too, their educational struggles were linked with other ordeals and challenges that long predated their pregnancies.
“LaRonda,” for instance, was sexually abused when she was five years old, held back in kindergarten, and then put into the foster care system because her father was in jail and her mother used drugs. “I was in so many different places, it’s like the way they teach is different from another place and it was too hard to catch up with whatever they’re trying to do,” she told the interviewers. She dropped out of school at 17 and became pregnant two years later.
LaRonda was one of many moms in the study who’d been a victim of child sexual abuse. In the interviews, with no prompting, a quarter of the subjects spoke of having been sexually abused as children. “We began to see this emerging,” Black says, “and when we did our analysis, it became clear that this was one of the key associations.”
The researchers are careful to note that they are not isolating child sexual abuse alone as a cause of teen births. But, they say, the shame, sense of betrayal and feelings of powerlessness that such abuse causes can make it harder for a victim to negotiate sexual relationships as an adolescent. “If we want to improve self-esteem,” Erdmans and Black write, “we can start by tearing through the cloak of silence that surrounds child sexual abuse and helping girls to heal.”
As common as child sexual abuse was in the stories of the teen moms in the study, other forms of violence were even more prevalent. Nearly half of the subjects described childhoods marked by domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and physical child abuse. Many of these teen moms also grew up in poverty. Erdmans and Black note that “gendered violence happens irrespective of class or racial privilege,” but disadvantaged women and girls have fewer resources to confront it. Attempts by vulnerable girls to escape a violent family home often led them “into the arms of abusive men, to early pregnancies, and in some cases into the sex business,” the authors write. Later, the hope that having a baby might change their lives for the better prompted many of these teens to carry their pregnancies to term. They saw motherhood as a way to “start over.”
The many stories of violence and abuse made for an emotional research process. “We wrote from a place of indignation at times,” Black says. “We wrote from a place of sorrow, because we think that’s a very important part of telling the story. In some ways, we’re working against the orthodoxy of social science, in which you’re supposed to be value-neutral and detached.”
Erdmans was accustomed to emotional proximity with her subjects. A previous book of hers, The Grasinski Girls: The Choices They Had and the Choices They Made, explored the lives of a group of working-class Polish-American women who happened to be her mother and aunts. It was, in part, this research that inspired her subsequent focus on teen moms.
“That book was about these mothers from the 1950s, whom I guess we would call the ‘good’ mothers,” she says. “They got married, then they had children.” Yet three of Erdmans’ aunts had children as teenagers—as did Black’s mother. “I was interested in sort of balancing them,” Erdmans says, “and here were these stigmatized mothers.” Black’s prior research also informed how he approached the teen pregnancy study. For his book When a Heart Turns Rock Solid: The Lives of Three Puerto Rican Brothers On and Off the Streets, he spent 18 years on an urban ethnography project in Springfield, Mass. His close observation of his subjects’ personal struggles led him to broader conclusions about how social forces like schools and prison have shaped the lives of Puerto Rican youth.
“When I’m interacting with individuals, I’m actually seeing something else,” Black says. “I try to make these connections between individual lives and larger structural dynamics and historical processes.”
While Erdmans and Black make many of these connections in their book, they emphasize that teen moms are not a monolithic group. “When we were looking at the life stories, we could see that they were very diverse,” Erdmans says. Some of their subjects were as young as 13 when they gave birth—though, counter to public perceptions, the majority of teen moms are 18- and 19-year-old adults. Some were in romantic relationships, while others were “victims of male predation.” Some came from urban backgrounds and some from rural.
This diversity challenges prevailing stereotypes about young mothers, the researchers say. It can also have profound policy implications. A pregnancy prevention program focused solely on contraception or abstinence, for example, would likely only have worked for about 20 percent of the study’s population, the so-called “good girls,” Erdmans says. “When you have someone who’s a full-blown heroin addict and in a very abusive relationship, a ‘Just Say No’ program is not going to reach someone like her.”
The researchers say society needs to address the problems teen mothers face, rather than treating teen mothers themselves as the problem. “We need to think about how to bring about social change and not just behavioral change,” they write.
Indeed, the book calls for nothing less than a movement to end inequality. It is a more comprehensive change than tends to be sought by advocates for teen mothers. But even modest policy reforms, Erdmans says, could have a big effect.
For example, she notes that several of the women in their study were certified nursing assistants. “If that were a $15-an-hour job that had full benefits, these women wouldn’t be dependent on the street or violent men,” she says. “They could take care of themselves, they could move into decent housing, they could raise their children, they could support themselves, they could have good health care. That’s the sort of social change we’re talking about.” A national childcare or paid family leave program would also do wonders, the authors say, as would making some dorms on college campuses open to women with children.
Erdmans and Black believe that such reforms would greatly improve the life chances of teen moms and their families. But they also argue that the larger social changes they advocate would cause the teen birth rate in this country to decline even further than it has already. “For the U.S. to be on par with teen birth rates in comparable industrialized countries,” Erdmans says, “we will have to deal with larger structural problems—most importantly, income inequality, racial segregation and violence against women.”
Andrea Appleton is a freelance writer in Baltimore.