Earlier this month, with a fanfare of support from the White House and Capitol Hill, a coalition of liberals and conservatives called the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy launched a new crusade. Its goals: To increase awareness of the devastating problems faced by adolescent mothers and to cut the teen pregnancy rate one-third by 2005.
Americans, the group declared, “see teen pregnancy as a powerful marker of a society gone astray - a clear and compelling example of how our families, communities and common culture are under siege.” Experts warned of the link between teenage childbearing and multigenerational poverty, crime, joblessness and high welfare costs.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted a reception. MTV pledged to develop public service announcements. Script writers and producers for ABC’s daytime television shows offered to help. Black Entertainment Television and the hip hop/rap group Salt-N-Pepa lent a hand.
Somehow, though, when the campaign against teen pregnancy was kicking off in Washington, V. Joseph Hotz’s invitation must have been lost in the mail.
That can happen if you’re the sort of person who tries to sell sour apples to Betty Crocker. And when it comes to teenage childbearing, Hotz is a sour-apples kind of guy.
An economist and social policy specialist with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, 11 years on the faculty of the University of Chicago and a new faculty appointment at the University of California, Los Angeles, Hotz is the very model of a modern professional scholar. He was commissioned by a foundation fighting teen pregnancy to mount a major study of the issue.
But he came to conclusions that many in the fight against teen pregnancy and childbearing now wish would simply go away.
Hotz has found that being a teenager has almost nothing to do with the problems that afflict most such females and their children. Teenage childbearing is a symptom, he says, not a cause. Teenagers do not have problems because they have babies; they have babies because they have problems.
Even if they had put off having children for a few years - until they were no longer teenagers - it would make little difference, Hotz contends. They would still be grindingly poor, still collect welfare, still have terrible jobs and difficult lives. So would their children.
The problems they suffer from are so severe and began so early in their lives that it makes little difference whether they have babies as teenagers or a few years later. Focusing on their age diverts attention from the real causes of their problems, he says, and makes solutions harder to achieve.
Could this be true?
Hotz has amassed what some of his fellow scholars consider an impressive body of evidence. Professor Christopher S. Jencks of Harvard, a specialist in poverty and related social problems, praises the ingenuity of Hotz’s research methods as “way better than anything anyone else has done before.”
If Hotz should turn out to be right, the implications for national policy would be substantial: Instead of crusading against the symptoms, society should be working on the underlying causes - such things as poverty, dysfunctional families, physical and sexual abuse of young girls, poor school performance and behavioral problems.
That may not sound radical, but for advocacy groups and others trying to grapple with the problem, there are at least two inconvenient aspects to Hotz’s message:
First, it implies a need to help them develop more stable lives with the help of the government, which is politically unpopular these days. “It’s easier to blame it all on the teenagers, on a smaller group and how it behaves,” says Linda Ohmans, whose experience directing a program for teenage mothers in Washington parallels Hotz’s findings.
Second, Hotz’s work implies that a great deal of sincere, well-intentioned effort by family-planning organizations, proponents of more sex education and other such groups has been wide of the mark. Neither liberals nor conservatives view Hotz’s findings with much relish; each side sees them as potential ammunition for the other.
“I understand that this is not what everyone wants to hear,” Hotz says, “but sooner or later we’ve got to own up to the fact that some things are not likely to work.”
Small wonder the professor was not sitting at the head table.
Grandson of an Irish immigrant housekeeper for the parish priest, husband of a seventh-grade math teacher, father of two children, Joe Hotz is as mainstream as they come. He is not even the first to question the idea that having a baby as a teenager causes the manifold problems that follow.
Arline T. Geronimus of the University of Michigan and Sanders Korenman of the National Bureau of Economic Research had already conducted studies casting doubt on teenage childbearing as the cause of later problems. Studies by Elijah Anderson of the University of Pennsylvania on the sociological roots of the problem pointed to similar conclusions.
Hotz’s breakthrough was to develop a method for comparing teenage mothers with a group of their peers - a formidable task because, even in the poor, minority neighborhoods in which most teen mothers live, they are significantly more disadvantaged than most other young women around them.
Hotz and his colleagues, using data from a study that has been following a large group of young women for many years, extracted a sample of women who had had babies as teenagers and another group who had become pregnant as teens but had lost their babies to miscarriages and had children only later.
When Hotz’s team looked at how the lives of the two sets of women had turned out, some startling conclusions emerged:
By their mid-30s, the teen mothers had worked harder and longer and earned more money than their counterparts who had their first babies later. Both groups had collected welfare, but the teen mothers had paid more taxes and on balance cost taxpayers less.
The teen mothers got about as much education as their peers who deferred childbearing. Fewer graduated from high school, but more got graduate equivalency degrees.
Problems of alcohol and drug abuse were no more common among the teen mothers than among the other group.
Even the children of teenage mothers may not do significantly worse than the offspring of similarly disadvantaged but somewhat older peers, Hotz thinks, though this point remains disputed.
What explains these findings?
First, the problems afflicting teen mothers are generally so serious that the passage of a few years does little to erase them.
Second, most teenage mothers belong to communities in which having children at a relatively early age is the norm. The practical question is not whether prospective teen mothers can be induced to wait as long as middle-class women do; the question is whether they can be persuaded to wait until their early 20s, and whether doing so would make much difference - especially since two-thirds of all teen mothers are 18 or 19 years old when they have their first babies.
Third, since poor, severely disadvantaged women must compete near the bottom of the labor market, where credentials are less important than steady performance, there may be benefits to getting childbearing out of the way early, when earnings potential is lowest, and then beginning an uninterrupted work career.
When all is said and done, what makes Joe Hotz as unwelcome as mold on bread is not so much his research as the politics of the issue.
Even moderates find little reason to trumpet Hotz’s work. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, for example, is laboring to find ways to sidestep the ideological conflicts and find practical strategies both sides can accept. Giving the spotlight to Hotz’s work could stir controversy and make it harder to build such coalitions. At the same time, the campaign wants to encourage better research on the issue.