Only a slice of the problem
I commend Gov. Phil Bryant for his focus on reducing the rate of teenage pregnancy. I’m not optimistic, though, that his task force will accomplish much or that it’s even tackling the whole problem that hamstrings Mississippi and most acutely the Delta.
The Republican came to Holmes County last week to talk about teen pregnancy and his goal to reduce the rate by 17 percent by 2017.
Holmes County was a fitting place for his talk, since it’s a place where teen birth rates are epidemic — more than double the national average. But he could have picked almost any Delta county to make his point.
It’s an important one. Teen pregnancy has trouble written all over it — medical, social and financial.
The younger the mother, the greater the chance of complications during pregnancy, risking her health and that of her child. Babies born prematurely or with a low birthweight can experience developmental delays that can impact the rest of their life.
Teens who have children often don’t stop at one either. Of the 5,500 births last year to teen mothers, one out of five were at least that mother’s second child.
Teen pregnancy is a reliable predictor of poverty, lower educational achievement and dependence on government assistance.
The phenomenon is cyclical. Teen mothers tend to have children who will become mothers and fathers as teenagers as well.
As serious an issue as teen pregnancy is, though, it’s only a subset of a bigger problem — out-of-wedlock births to mothers of all ages.
Even as worthwhile an achievement as getting teenagers to postpone having babies until they are in their 20s might be, it would be of marginal benefit if most of their eventual offspring are still born out of wedlock. That’s a point Bryant isn’t making.
Targeting teen pregnancy is not controversial. Few people of any race or economic class will defend the wisdom of having a baby before finishing high school.
But what takes fortitude is criticizing adults who have children outside of marriage. Of the nearly 22,000 babies born last year to unwed mothers in Mississippi, the vast majority — 77 percent — were born to mothers who were 20 years of age or older. There were as many women between the ages of 25 and 29 having babies out of wedlock as girls a decade younger.
Talking about illegitimate births, though, isn’t the politic thing to do because they’ve become so prevalent and because they’ve been more common with one race. The race gap, though, is gradually closing. About 75 percent of black children today are born out of wedlock; for whites, it’s about 33 percent.
Mississippi, of course, is not alone in its tendency to forego marriage when it comes to child-bearing. Nationally, about 40 percent of children are born out of wedlock. That compares to 4 percent 70 years ago.
That means, in the course of roughly three generations, it’s become 10 times more likely that an expectant mother will be unmarried.
That is a larger epidemic than teen pregnancy, and yet America has become skittish about labeling it as such. It’s hard to criticize a life choice that is being made by people with whom you socialize, go to church or share kinship.
In the past, shame helped keep illegitimacy in check, but shame has gone out of fashion in a culture that says there are few absolutes when it comes to morality. The word “illegitimacy” itself is slowly becoming politically incorrect because of the potential stigma it carries for mother and child. Even Bryant, a cultural conservative, said in an interview a few months back about teen pregnancy that he didn’t want to come off as judging or labeling others. “We don’t want to condemn,” he said.
Such moral squeamishness, though, is part of the problem. When a society stops calling aberrant behavior wrong, it indirectly encourages it.
Certainly, there are children who are well-adjusted and thriving in single-parent homes, but they are not the rule. The rule is they are more likely to struggle in school, be stuck in poverty, have trouble with the law and have children themselves out of wedlock. Even when you equalize for income, recent research has shown that children raised in one-parent households are less likely to finish high school than those raised in two-parent ones. When high rates of illegitimacy are added on top of chronic poverty, it becomes almost impossible to escape government dependence.
Hollywood and the PC crowd will try to say that bearing children in or out of wedlock is irrelevant to how their lives turn out. They should spend a little time in the Delta, where more than three out of four children are born and raised in single-parent homes.
They might realize they are peddling a lie.