Destinies of the Disadvantaged

Destinies of the Disadvantaged: The Politics of Teen Childbearing

Frank F. Furstenberg
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Destinies of the Disadvantaged
    Book Description:

    Teen childbearing has risen to frighteningly high levels over the last four decades, jeopardizing the life chances of young parents and their offspring alike, particularly among minority communities. Or at least, that’s what politicians on the right and left often tell us, and what the American public largely believes. But sociologist Frank Furstenberg argues that the conventional wisdom distorts reality. In Destinies of the Disadvantaged, Furstenberg traces the history of public concern over teen pregnancy, exploring why this topic has become so politically powerful, and so misunderstood. Based on over forty years of Furstenberg’s research on teen childbearing, Destinies of the Disadvantaged relates how the issue emerged from obscurity to become one of the most heated social controversies in America. Both slipshod research by social scientists and opportunistic grandstanding by politicians have contributed to public misunderstanding of the issue. Although out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy rose notably between 1960 and 1990—a cause for concern given the burdens of single motherhood at a young age—this trend did not reflect a rise in the rate of overall teen pregnancies. In fact, teen pregnancy actually declined dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s. The number of unmarried teenage mothers rose after 1960, not because more young women became pregnant, but because those who did increasingly chose not to rush into marriage. Furstenberg shows how early social science research on this topic exaggerated the adverse consequences of early parenthood both for young parents and for their children. Researchers also inaccurately portrayed single teenage motherhood as a phenomenon concentrated among minorities. Both of these misapprehensions skewed subsequent political debates. The issue became a public obsession and remained so during the 1990s, even as rates of out-of-wedlock teen childbearing plummeted. Addressing teen pregnancy was originally a liberal cause, led by advocates of family planning services, legalized abortion, and social welfare programs for single mothers. The issue was later adopted by conservatives, who argued that those liberal remedies were encouraging teen parenthood. According to Furstenberg, the flexible political usefulness of the issue explains its hold on political discourse. The politics of teen parenthood is a fascinating case study in the abuse of social science for political ends. In Destinies of the Disadvantaged, Furstenberg brings that tale to life with the perspective of a historian and the insight of an insider, and provides the straight facts needed to craft effective policies to address teen pregnancy.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-234-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. About the Author
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Chapter 1 The History of Teenage Childbearing as a Social Problem
    (pp. 1-23)

    A century from now, social and demographic historians may be pondering the question of why the topic of teenage childbearing suddenly became so prominent in America during the last several decades of the twentieth century. The issue emerged from social invisibility during the 1950s and early 1960s, when rates of childbearing among teens reached historical peaks, and rose to a level of public obsession just as rates of teenage childbearing began to plummet in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1995, in his State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton singled out teenage childbearing as “our most serious...

  6. Chapter 2 From Teenage Mother to Midlife Matriarch
    (pp. 24-52)

    When Arthur Campbell(1968) wrote his scenario of the life course of teenage mothers in 1968, quoted in the previous chapter, only scant evidence existed on the social and economic consequences of teenage childbearing. Campbell was largely surmising the adverse effects of having a child early in life based on cross-sectional comparisons of women whose first birth occurred in their teens with women who had children later in life. If few studies existed at the time on the short-term effects of early childbearing, even less information was available about the long-term consequences of teenage parenthood for the parents or their offspring....

  7. Chapter 3 The Next Generation
    (pp. 53-72)

    The previous chapter reviewed the evidence calling into question just how much teenage childbearing compromises the life prospects of young mothers in later life. I concluded that popular accounts in the media, the views often expressed by advocates, and even professional writings overstate the costs to young mothers when taking fuller measure of their circumstances prior to parenthood. Nonetheless, it is possible, even plausible, that early childbearing could still impose significant costs on the offspring of teenage parents. Whether their children fare less well than the children of older childbearers is the topic of this chapter.

    There are many reasons...

  8. Chapter 4 Sexuality and Reproductive Health
    (pp. 73-105)

    In the earlier chapters of this book, I assembled evidence showing that teenage childbearing has never been quite the problem that most Americans believe it to be. For a host of reasons, the issue has assumed greater political importance and cultural significance than has ever been warranted by either demographic trends or the impact on young mothers and their offspring. Rather than being a primary source of social disadvantage, early childbearing is better understood as a product of disadvantage. As far as researchers have been able to demonstrate, its long-term impact on young mothers and their offspring is modest once...

  9. Chapter 5 Supporting Marriage
    (pp. 106-136)

    At the beginning of the Baltimore Study, public concern about the decline of marriage was not yet on the political agenda. Most young adults in the United States still married at ages that by present-day standards seem shockingly young. In 1965 the median age of marriage had already started its upward trend but still stood at 20.6 for women and 22.8 for men. Close to 40 percent ofallwomen married in their teens, and more than half of these younger women were pregnant at the time of their wedding (Bachu 1999).

    The contrast to the present could hardly be...

  10. Chapter 6 Teenage Childbearing and Welfare Reform
    (pp. 137-159)

    Soon after Rwanda Powers discovered she was pregnant, she applied for and received public assistance to help support her child while she finished school. Although the father of the baby was in jail, Rwanda explained to the interviewer, Mrs. Blau, that they were planning to marry as soon as he was released. That did not happen. A year after her first child was born, Rwanda was pregnant again with the child of another man, and she continued on public assistance. A high school dropout, Rwanda reported that she wanted to return to school so that she could find a good...

  11. Chapter 7 Destinies of the Disadvantaged
    (pp. 160-174)

    The early chapters of this book describe the experiences of the teenage mothers in Baltimore and their families, whose lives I followed for more than three decades. Their experiences reveal a surprising fact: early childbearing, which most policymakers believe to be a powerful source of disadvantage to young mothers, had only modest effects on their prospects in later life, after taking into account their circumstances prior to becoming pregnant. This finding is widely supported by a growing body of research reviewed in this book. Although for obvious reasons we can never measure the “true” causal effects of early childbearing with...

  12. References
    (pp. 175-196)
  13. Index
    (pp. 197-204)