Like many RH Reality Check readers, I have been closely following New York City’s fear- and shame-based campaign against teen pregnancy. The print ads include pictures of crying babies with captions like “Honestly Mom, chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” The ads also tell teens that if they have a kid, they will grow up to be poor. But the ads get it all wrong. Teen parenting doesn’t cause poverty; poverty causes teen parenting.
Developed by the New York Human Resources Administration (HRA), the campaign has seen a significant backlash since it was introduced last month. A group of activists in the city created a counter-campaign and demanded the city take the ads down. As Miriam Pérez noted in an article for RH Reality Check, the backlash may have resulted in a few tweaks and improvements, but the ads are still up, and the HRA hasn’t changed the campaign’s underlying tone at all.
I finally saw the ads for myself last week. My subway car was plastered with crying babies telling their potential teen parents not to get pregnant. The ads I saw were focused on money. In one, a curly haired toddler in a bunny rabbit shirt said, “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years.” Another featured a one-and-a-half-year-old African-American girl with a bow on top of her head and tears streaming down her cheeks, saying, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars a year.”
But the one that got me, the poster that I happened to be standing in front of for my ride on the C train, was one that might almost be seen as encouraging had it not been so completely meaningless. It read, “If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty.”
I don’t know whether this statistic is accurate, though it very well might be. Let’s face it: If you graduate from high school and get a job, you are two steps ahead when it comes to not living in poverty, whether or not you get married and have kids.
But these are big “ifs” that are affected by things way out of teenagers’ control, like where they’re born, the quality of the schools in their area, whether their parents are highly educated, whether their parents are employed, the employment rate in their neighborhood, and what the economy is like when they turn 18. And none of that has to do with whether or not they become parents before they get married.
Pérez points out that supporters of the campaign are missing the point — stigmatizing teen parents won’t prevent future teen parents, because that stigma already exists. I would add that the campaign misses another very important point: Teen parenting does not cause poverty. Poverty causes teen parenting.
Cause and Effect
The ads point out that economic outcomes for teen parents and their children tend to be poor. We know that teen mothers are less likely to graduate from high school, that the children of teen mothers are also less likely to graduate from high school (one ad in the campaign points to this statistics), that teen mothers are less likely to marry, and that they are more likely to live in poverty. It would be easy to assume that these are natural consequences of teen parenting.