Tackling the third rail of teen pregnancy

Gerry Garibaldi, a teacher at an inner-city school in Connecticut, talks frankly in an article for the City Journal about why his kids are failing in school — and why the problem won’t be solved by more money:

Thanks to the feds, urban schools like mine—already entitled to substantial federal largesse under Title I, which provides funds to public schools with large low-income populations—are swimming in money. At my school, we pay five teachers to tutor kids after school and on Saturdays. They sit in classrooms waiting for kids who never show up. We don’t want for books—or for any of the cutting-edge gizmos that non–Title I schools can’t afford: computerized whiteboards, Elmo projectors, the works. Our facility is state-of-the-art, thanks to a recent $40 million face-lift, with gleaming new hallways and bathrooms and a fully computerized library.

Here’s my prediction: the money, the reforms, the gleaming porcelain, the hopeful rhetoric about saving our children—all of it will have a limited impact, at best, on most city schoolchildren. Urban teachers face an intractable problem, one that we cannot spend or even teach our way out of: teen pregnancy. This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one. There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch.

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Garibaldi paints a grim picture of his students’ home lives: Most often raised by a single mother who is too busy trying to make a living to effectively parent her children, sometimes neglected or abused by mom’s boyfriends, the kids get into all kinds of trouble when left to their own devices — including getting pregnant at an alarming rate.

When the talk turns to society’s treatment of single motherhood, though, the situation becomes more complex:

Within my lifetime, single parenthood has been transformed from shame to saintliness. In our society, perversely, we celebrate the unwed mother as a heroic figure, like a fireman or a police officer. During the last presidential election, much was made of Obama’s mother, who was a single parent. Movie stars and pop singers flaunt their daddy-less babies like fishing trophies.

None of this is lost on my students. In today’s urban high school, there is no shame or social ostracism when girls become pregnant. . . .

Connecticut is among the most generous of the states to out-of-wedlock mothers. Teenage girls like Nicole qualify for a vast array of welfare benefits from the state and federal governments: medical coverage when they become pregnant (called “Healthy Start”); later, medical insurance for the family (“Husky”); child care (“Care 4 Kids”); Section 8 housing subsidies; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; cash assistance. If you need to get to an appointment, state-sponsored dial-a-ride is available. . . .

In theory, this provision of services is humane and defensible, an essential safety net for the most vulnerable—children who have children. What it amounts to in practice is a monolithic public endorsement of single motherhood—one that has turned our urban high schools into puppy mills. The safety net has become a hammock.

It’s clear that teen mothers aren’t hurting from lack of government assistance — but is taking away that “net” the best answer? Somehow I don’t think these girls are really considering the financial benefits or drawbacks to single parenthood when they become pregnant; would less assistance make them any less likely to get in trouble in the first place?

And what about the “shame vs. celebrate” question? Certainly celebrity culture can flaunt single parenthood, as if babies were simply another accessory, and that attitude trickles down. And yes, single motherhood can be seen as a badge of honor among some of these young women — an attitude that should be confronted with the dim reality of the prospects for children raised by a teenage mother on welfare.

But once a teen is already pregnant, is shame the way to go? Would we prefer her to think of her child as a burden better aborted? One commenter on the piece helpfully suggested “compulsory birth control” for all teens; could compulsory abortion be far behind in such a mentality?

I ask so many questions here because I truly don’t know the answer. “Personal moral accountability,” as Garibaldi mentions, is at the heart of it in many ways — but how do you teach that, particularly when it’s not being taught at home?

A problem bigger than a blog post, I think, but do read the whole excellent article, and then let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.


  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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