Starting Out Behind

Sociologist Frank Furstenberg’s new book explores why the topic of teen pregnancy has become so politically powerful — and so misunderstood.
April 29, 2008

Sociology professor Frank Furstenberg was three chapters into his latest book when he became bored. For over four decades now, he’s documented the lives of nearly 300 women – from their teenage years when they were poor, unwed mothers in Baltimore, through their middle-age when they were family matriarchs. He’d already published numerous papers and two previous books about these women, and he wasn’t sure where else to go with the project. “I can’t do this,” he thought. So he threw the chapters away and shelved the project for three years.

Then it dawned on him how he could culminate the massive, longitudinal Baltimore Study that has loomed over his entire career. “I wanted to make a book about the policies that have grown out of the issue of teenage childbearing, how public policies have been bent and refracted for political reasons,” Furstenberg recalled recently in his McNeil Building office.

Destinies of the Disadvantaged: The Politics of Teen Childbearing tackles welfare reform, marriage promotion and reproductive health among other highly politicized issues. From Reagan-era stereotyping of unwed, African-American mothers as “welfare queens” through modern-day abstinence promotion, Furstenberg, the Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology and research associate in the Population Studies Center, writes about how politicians distort social-science information for fodder in electoral politics. “We created an enormous stereotype during the Reagan years – and the Bush-one and Clinton years – that poor women get addicted to welfare,” Furstenberg says. “There is a minority of these women who live up to the stereotype, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s a relatively small minority.”

The long-term costs of teenage childbearing among the women in Furstenberg’s study, 80-percent of whom are African-American, have been only modest. About 20 years after giving birth, the vast majority of women had incomes above the poverty line, he reports. Fewer than one-fifth remain on public assistance, and more than 75 percent hold regular jobs. Many of the women complete high school or receive a GED, and about 20 percent have taken college courses.

Being a teenage mother isn’t their major impediment. Their greatest obstacle is that they started poor. “If you’re born poor, you don’t start on the 20 yard line,” Furstenberg argues. “You start well back in the end zone. You’ve got 120 yards to go. Most people have 80.”

America has the least amount of wealth redistribution in the world, he notes, and the largest divide between wealthy and impoverished. The education system perpetuates the existing status – the tax system allows for more affluent neighborhoods to have better schools. “We’re far from the promise of equal opportunity,” he contends. As a nation that scorns public assistance, aiding the disadvantaged is used as a wedge between political parties, Furstenberg explains. When welfare reform was enacted in 1996, for example, it lacked social programs for self-improvement, especially for men. “We’ve tried to get women more employable, leaving the men, more or less, to fend for themselves. That’s a silly policy.”

Marriage promotion is just as myopic. “Marrying a man who is not going to be able to carry the load of support is like marrying another child,” he observes. “Some of the women commented, ‘I’ve got two children. I don’t need a third.’” Instead of promoting marriage, he recommends giving couples the skills to manage relationships. “A marriage that isn't viable right from the start is probably not going to get more viable over time.”

When it comes to teenage, premarital sex, the government takes a moral stance: Don’t do it. “We’ve adopted an approach that has been foolhardy,” Furstenberg scoffs. “We need to prepare teenagers to make intelligent, informed decisions for if and when they do have sex, because they will. Most of them do.” The real danger, according to Dorothy Mann, executive director of the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania and 25-year friend of Furstenberg, is that the government’s abstinence efforts don’t help young people deal with the situation if they do become pregnant. “Frank totally embraces the concept of prevention, but he also understands what can be done to improve their lives if they become young parents,” Mann says. “He bridges those two worlds.”

A Baltimore native who joined Penn in 1967, Furstenberg stumbled into this research because his mother was a social worker at Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital. She worked with teen mothers to avoid unwanted, repeat pregnancies, and she invited her son evaluate the program in 1965.

Furstenberg has become an admirer of the women he’s documented. “In a certain way, the three books I’ve written are an effort to tell their stories,” he says. He’s pestered four decades of Penn students with anecdotes about his Baltimore Study. “Now,” he says with a smile, “I’m done.”