Zero Shame Game
At the Washington Post, Patrick Welsh wrings his hands over the more supportive treatment pregnant teens and teen moms are receiving from some school districts. He is dismayed that teen moms are openly flaunting their motherhood.
The somber statistics about teen motherhood are the reason the day-care center, run by the local nonprofit Campagna Center, was opened in T.C. Williams two years ago. The idea is to keep the girls in school, let them get their diplomas and help them avoid the kind of fate described earlier. I’ve been a teacher for more than 30 years, and I want the best for my students and to help them succeed in every way possible. I know that these girls need support. But I can’t help thinking we’re going at this all wrong.
On the surface, Alexandria seems to be striving to stem teen pregnancy. Every high school student is required to take a “family life” course that teaches about birth control, sexually transmitted disease and teen pregnancy. The Adolescent Health Center, a clinic providing birth control, was built a few blocks from the school. The city-run Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy sponsors workshops for parents and teens. But none of this coalesces to hit the teens with the message that getting pregnant is a disaster. And within the school, apart from the family life class, the attitude is laissez-faire, as if teachers and administrators are afraid to address the issue for fear of offending the students who have children.
Once a girl gets pregnant, though, the school leaps in to do everything for her. But I wonder: Is it possible that all this assistance — with little or no comment about the kids’ actions — has the unintended effect of actually encouraging them to get pregnant? Are we making it easier for girls to make a bad choice and helping them avoid the truth about the consequences?
Heavens! Helping people without censuring them? As one nurse observes, “There is zero shame.” Zero shame! Ooooh God, Nooooo! How can we expect people to act more like us responsible middle class types if we don’t instill them with self-loathing?
In fact, as you no doubt suspected, these people are bringing it on themselves. (Aren’t they always, those lazy, shiftless people?) Our anguished writer cites the same school nurse to dredge up the “pregnancy pact” myth spread last Summer by a high school principal in Massachusetts. Say, whatever happened to that story? Oh, that’s right — two weeks after Time.com fomented another reason for adults to fear their irrational teens, it was refuted. By the mayor. So whatcha bet that the school nurse in this article has no direct knowledge of such a pact among her students; that she overheard some “buzz” somewhere (conservative talk radio? news headlines next to her email? an opinionated colleague?); and that she parroted this bit of conventional wisdom for the benefit of our gullible writer?
And if you detect a slight trace of racial privilege mingled with the classist overtones, your nose will soon get out of joint. Welsh notes that overall teen pregnancies have dropped significantly:
The birth rate among teens, after falling 36 percent since 1990, went up 3 percent in 2006, the first increase in 15 years. And most of the rise is due to pregnancies among Hispanic girls.
Sensitive liberal guy that he is, Welsh hastens to note that white teens get pregnant, too, but it’s a class thing, and where he lives, class translates into ethnicity. Fair enough. Poverty and disadvantage hit people of color a lot harder than people of, um, non-color. But this is the point where Welsh starts dredging up the “pregnancy pact” myth and quoting high school students of, um, non-color whose disapproval is hard to conceal. These Hispanic teen moms “are living in a dream world” so says a girl in AP English. I was relieved (surprised, too) that Welsh got around to talking to at least one of the young women he spends so much time discussing with other people.
I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit that I’m torn about T.C’s teen moms and the Tiny Titans center. As upset as I get at the recklessness I see in some of the girls and their boyfriends, I can’t begrudge someone like Cynthia Quinteros the help she needs to raise her one-year-old son. “If it wasn’t for the day-care center, I would have to quit school to take care of Angel,” says the 16-year-old. “My mother is a single mom, and my brother is 11. My mom has to work.”
Cynthia’s days are grueling. She gets up at 6 a.m., feeds and dresses Angel and is at school by 7:50. She drops Angel off at the center, eats breakfast in the cafeteria and heads for class. Her mom picks her and the baby up at 3:15 p.m. At home, Cynthia eats, plays with Angel, starts homework and then leaves at 4:50 for her supermarket cashier’s job. She gets home at 10:10, does a little homework and goes to bed.
See? He’s a nice guy! He’s “torn”! He doesn’t “begrudge” Cynthia. He’ll even go into details about her “grueling” day — and, indeed, he chose the right word. But it doesn’t take him long to revert to ethnic stereotypes — and with Cynthia’s corroboration: a lot of her friends “actively tried to get pregnant” (but not Cynthia; she missed a Depo shot one day.) And according to a medical director, “most of these girls and their families see no problem with being unmarried and having a child at 16 or 17.”
Waiting for the “drain on public services” argument? Here it co-oo-omes!
Most of the mothers are in free and reduced school-lunch programs, and few have insurance. So when they get pregnant, a whole tax-supported industry kicks into action: The Health Department assigns a nurse to the girl, a group called Resource Mothers is notified to pick girls up at school or home and drive them to doctor’s appointments, and the Campagna Center plans day care for the child. The school dietitian plans nutritious meals for the mothers. The federally funded WIC program provides free formula, milk, cheese, peanut butter and the like to the teens and their babies. In Virginia, girls from 13 on up are eligible for free reproductive services — prenatal care, hospital visits and delivery.
According to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, teen childbearing nationwide cost taxpayers $9.1 billion in 2004. Teens 17 and under — the ages of most of the girls at T.C. — account for $8.6 billion of that total, or an average of $4,080 per teen mother annually.
Welsh repeatedly singles out Latina teens and “the rising birth rate among Hispanics” as sources of trouble for befuddled and overworked social workers, educators and health officials. Get it? They are a burden. They’re a drain on tax dollars that should be going to bailing out the financial industry or failing to reconstruct countries we’ve bombed into chaos and desperation. Damn these poor people and their grubby demands!
Look, no matter what age a woman becomes a mom, our society is not prepared to support the needs of children. Period. If “shame” needs to be directed at anyone, it’s the opponents of universal health care, education and a living wage. It’s the unthinking voters who have consistently clamored for tax cuts and psuedo-patriotic war-mongering. We’re momentarily in a “season of Hope/Change/Transformation/Whatever” but all along there have been these undercurrents of resentment against Hispanics and of frustration with our broken social safety nets. An article like this only feeds the fire.