Are the nation's efforts to curb Latina teen pregnancy actually making young Latinas more vulnerable? Vanessa,* age 19, watched President Obama's recent education address to students while holding her infant son and sitting with her niece Liz,* age 13. A few weeks earlier Vanessa had become one of the growing number of Latina teen moms in the United States, surviving on her fiancé's minimum wage job at Target and temporarily postponing a college education. What are the country's leaders telling Vanessa about her socioeconomic future as a young mom? What are they telling Liz?
Vanessa's story is quite common: Latina teens give birth at a rate more than twice that of white teens. Latinos have a much lower high school and college graduate rate compared to white teens. The millions poured into programs aimed at curbing the Latina teen pregnancy rate and urging Latinos to pursue higher education have been largely ineffective. In fact, some of these campaigns may have inadvertently worsened the situation by misplacing blame and perpetuating bias. Instead of stigmatizing Vanessa, policy experts ought to be looking at the complex structural barriers that offer her starkly different choices than many of her teen counterparts.
Myths -- rather than realities -- have too often guided the public discourse about Latinas and pregnancy. Latina teens don't have sex more often than their white counterparts and most desire a college education. In addition, despite the demonization of immigrants in recent health care debates, most Latina teen moms are not immigrants. So what is underneath the startling pregnancy statistics?
Compared to white teens, Latina teens have higher pregnancy rates because they use birth control much less often and reject abortion much more often. Religion and family influence are very important factors, but for sexually active Latina teens these are not the only or even most relevant obstacles to birth control usage. For many Latinas, the top barriers to birth control usage are much more mundane: transportation, lack of health insurance or cash for health services, confusing and intimidating immigration regulation for households with a combination of citizens and non-citizens, and lack of guidance about available services. When teen pregnancy prevention programs and messages ignore these obstacles, Latinas become distanced from sex education efforts.
Sex education programs often tell teens that delaying parenthood until they finish high school and college will bring them some version of the American dream: a good job, economic security, family stability. The troubling reality is that for Latinas this promise comes true for only a limited few. Recent research confirms that Latina teen mothers have roughly the same socioeconomic circumstances at age 30 as those Latina teens who delay childbirth. The unfortunate reality is that access to college and the opportunities that emerge as a result is starkly different for Latina teens and white teens.
Latinas ought to be given the support they need to finish high school and attend college. But it's simply not enough to lecture Latina teens about prioritizing education; we must make real investments in tearing down barriers to educational opportunities and health care. We must find better ways to support young parents like Vanessa who wish to pursue college. Unfortunately too often the opposite happens. For example, legislation recently proposed to address teen pregnancy would have given a financial reward to college graduates who agreed to mentor youth living in poverty, but would not have provided additional resources to the young women. Shouldn't the youth living in poverty get the federal dollars to help them gain access to birth control and other resources that might give young women the power to plan their families the way they want them, rather than giving the money to college graduates?
Worsening this situation is the silly practice of one-size-fits-all messaging for all Latina teens. A thirteen-year-old sexually active teen poses very different concerns than a 19-year-old sexually active teen. In fact, about 44% of teen mothers are adults like Vanessa when they give birth -- 18 or 19 years old -- and they have needs that are different than those of young teens like Liz. Messages that treat teen pregnancy as an urgent health risk serve to stigmatize young adult mothers rather than empower teens to live healthy lives.
It may be politically expedient to treat high Latina teen pregnancy rates as the problem to be solved rather than the result of social inequities -- but it isn't likely to be effective. Many reproductive health advocates choose to focus narrowly on birth control messaging and avoid the related issues of immigration status, poverty, educational disparities and discrimination. But the result of this narrow vision has so far proved disastrous. Politicians need to get to the tough work of breaking down structural barriers to health care and education, and re-focus their efforts on giving young women the knowledge, access and power to plan their families in the ways that work best for them.
In a nutshell, if we can clamp down on the ways that Vanessa and Liz are stigmatized, and ramp up measures that expand access to education and health care, our entire society wins.
*Names have been changed to protect identities