Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book Review: Promises I Can Keep by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas

I'd had this book recommended to me by a number of people over the years, as it crops up frequently in discussions of unmarried teen/early twenties pregnancy. I had my own interest in the subject, of course: my mother had me when she was only twenty, and I've spent much of my life fighting against the stereotype that the children of young mothers are destined to have a drug addiction, no high school diploma, and, of course, three different children by as many men by the time they hit their early twenties (and, since my parents are divorced, I am supposed to be incapable of having normal relationships and must have massive Daddy Issues). It's really irritating and frustrating to have to combat that attitude every time the subject comes up. Equally irritating is the realization of how seriously people Just. Don't. Get. It. when it comes to this issue, and how that translates into totally ineffective social policies.

(Admittedly, there are few things more satisfying than throwing my Vanderbilt degree in the faces of less-educated people who insist that I'm inferior because of how old my mom was when I was born. HA.)

The problem that many people like me (feminist, liberal-minded who believe that pregnant teenagers should be treated like human beings, not baby factories for older, more affluent people) face is that negative outcomes associated with having children young are very real: they are generally less likely to finish high school (or college, for that matter), which in turn leads to long-lasting poverty. Their children are more likely to have health problems at birth, and, as young mothers are likely to wind up poor, their children are more likely to be raised in poverty and experience all of the negative social, educational, and economic baggage that comes with it. Most perversely they are far more likely to repeat the cycle by having children as teenagers themselves than children born to older adults.

The solution that most people hit on is prevention efforts, such as medically accurate, comprehensive sex education and easy access to reliable forms of birth control. These efforts have caused a decline in teen pregnancies over the last several decades; however, these declines have mainly been concentrated among middle- and upper-class teenagers. While pregnancy rates among poor teenagers have fallen, they haven't fallen as sharply. Edin and Kefalas offer a complex, yet highly convincing explanation for why this is.

The main thrust of Edin and Kefalas' thesis is that teenage pregnancy is not a career-ending injury for poor teenage girls in the same way it is for more affluent teens. Having attended an expensive private school as a teenager, I can attest to this. Several of my classmates got pregnant over the four years were were there, and every last one of them had an abortion. Having a child in that situation translated to direct and immediate losses: not being able to finish high school on time, having to go to state or community college instead of an elite university (and taking longer to finish that, too), being forced to keep living with your parents well past the age of eighteen, and getting to deal with the crappy way that many people treat young mothers.

Someone who has either already dropped out of high school, on the other hand, (this is the case for many, if not most, poor teenage mothers) or is just killing time until graduation so they can get a job at a convenience store has a lot less to lose. Basically, if all you have to look forward to is years of dead-end jobs and chronic underemployment, it doesn't really matter if you have your first child at seventeen or twenty-five: you and your baby are still going to be poor. College is not the entering adulthood rite of passage for poor women the way it is for the more affluent. Having a family is what changes them from children to adults in the eyes of their community, and, as such, even accidental pregnancies are welcomed (another interesting finding the researchers made are that the majority of these pregnancies are neither accidental nor intentional, and are usually passively conceived by lowered compliance with contraceptive use). Re-framing the issue of teen pregnancy as being a result of poverty rather than a root cause of it makes the issue far more coherent-- and explains why educational and birth control campaigns have only been partially effective.

The second part of Edin and Kefalas' argument involves why these young women do not get married. Interestingly, marriage initiatives have been the social conservatives' answer to the problems associated with teen pregnancy. Women who have children in dual-income families are less likely to be poor, so strongly pushing marriage initiatives would be a good way to decrease dependency on social programs and diniminish the negative effects of poverty on young children, they reason. Yet, despite Bush II-era programs, marriage rates have not been substantially altered. Edin and Kefalas ultimately conclude that low marriage rates have little to do with the women's attitude towards marriage; in fact, the women they study revere marriage and strongly hope to achieve the middle class ideal of marriage and home. The thing is that the women are unwilling to marry the men who fathered their children because the men fall short of what the women think they should be: they refuse to get better jobs to support them and their children, they run around and cheat on them while they're pregnant, they deny fathering the children, they won't help raise or support the children once they're born, and so on and so forth.

Most of the women who have chosen to leave the fathers of their children state that, given the fathers' financial insufficiencies, marrying their children's father would take resources away from their children. It's an interesting twist on the idea of a lack of marriageable men theory. Due to twentieth-century economic changes, there aren't a lot of legal, lucrative jobs open to poor, uneducated men. Manufacturing jobs have been shipped over seas, even the most menial of office jobs require at least a two-year degree, if not a full bachelor's, and minimum wages have not kept pace with inflation.  Many poor men who want to make a decent living find themselves resorting to illegal activities, such as selling weapons and/or dealing drugs, which may provide some income, but offers the mothers of their children yet another reason to not want them around. As it turns out, poor women are looking for a lasting partnership, but are realistic enough to recognize that their boyfriends may not be suitable for that purpose. And while they may be willing to forego the marital ideals of the middle and upper classes, they're not willing to give up on having children of their own.

An eye-opening look into the true causes of young motherhood. 4 out of 5 stars.

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