Monday, April 20, 2009

College Drinking and Poor Teen Sex: An Analogy

We are talking about teen welfare mothers in the family class, using Edin and Kefalas' Promises I Can Keep. The authors quickly dispose of the first two myths about teen pregnancy - that poor teens would not get pregnant so often if they had more sex education or if they had more access to birth control technology. That is not the problem. The teen moms in this study know perfectly well that sex can lead to babies, and they have birth control technology, which they use when they don't want to get pregnant.

The real difference between the teen welfare moms and my middle class students, or the middle class do-gooders (like me) who want to prevent poor teen pregnancy is that the poor teens don't really care if they get pregnant or not, while the middle class people who plan their lives, do. The Promises I Can Keep moms said that half of their children were "neither planned nor unplanned." Having a baby was not something they were trying to do, but it would not derail any life plan they had.

To students on the elite college track, this attitude is dumbfounding. I was trying to think of an analogy that might make this calculation seems more intelligible. This is what came to me.

On any given weekend, a sizable minority of college students will not drink at all, a small minority will get drunk on purpose, and another group will drink and may end up drunk. This last group might be as many as half. On this campus, nearly all of these students will have received extensive education on the effects of alcohol. Some take this information and choose to be abstinent. Some take this information and choose to be moderate drinkers. A few ignore it utterly and aim to get drunk. All students, likewise, have several kinds of "drunkness prevention technology" available to them. Some use it religiously, some ignore it.

I am most interested here in the middle group. They know drinking can lead to drunkenness. They know several ways that drunkenness can be avoided, some of them foolproof. They go to a weekend party and they don't really care if they get drunk or not. Their drunkness was "neither planned nor unplanned." They did not make a plan one way or the other because getting drunk or not would not derail any life plan they had.

For poor teen moms, having a baby is not in itself a bad thing; that is not the way they measure their character. Being a bad mom would be a bad thing, but they don't plan to be bad moms. For college drinkers, getting drunk is not in itself a bad thing; that is not the way they measure their character. Being an alcoholic would be a bad thing, but they don't plan to be alcoholics.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh dear. When reading your headline I mistook "poor" as a modifier for "sex", which led to a very different meaning than the one I believe you intended to convey. Perhaps a hyphen would be in order? (Although I of course defer to any better-schooled grammarians who are reading this.)

That having been said, I wonder if there is a connection between the "natural growth" approach to parenting and the lack of concern poorer teens have about becoming pregnant. It seems to me that motherhood must necessarily seem to be more of a commitment to children who have been "cultivated" by their own parents.

Tami Martin said...

Interesting though. Most interesting is the idea that the workings of the poor mind might not always be comprehensible to the middle class mind.

The child from a poor family who is strongly encouraged to attend college (grants, scholarships, loans, whatever) and whose parents are involved in their lives and take ownership in their part of moving their child up the SES strata would seem to be less likely to have the "if it happens, it happens" attitude.

But the "poor" kid whose parents were young, whose family start talking about jobs and families while the kid is still in high school probably just don't see another course of life for themselves.

I'm not sure that's very clear, but I believe that poverty is just as inherited as wealth in the forms of attitudes and what we're comfortable with and what options we have before us.

I have one daughter who became a mom at 16. Not planned and I think she's have done things differently if she had the chance. My other daughter became a mom at 18. Out on her own. Not really trying NOT to get pregnant, but not trying TO either. Both were encouraged to go to college by me, but another half of the family seemed to be waiting to see whose kid would get pregnant first. One generations's experiences becoming the expectations of the next.

Alex said...

Fascinating. I'm interested to know what happens with these poor teenage mothers after the first child, especially with the poor teenage mothers who PLANNED to have a baby. Is there then an increased use in birth control, or do they default to the middle, indifferent attitude of "if it happens, it's okay, if not, that's ok too?"

It also shows the dialectical relationship between poverty and teen pregnancy. We usually think of teen pregnancy as a factor that causes poverty, but from what I understand, Edin and Kefalas argue that poverty causes teen pregnancy as well. It's a cycle that can't be broken by distributing more condoms or having more sex ed classes in schools as much as by providing opportunities that would give poor teens hope that it IS possible for them to realize the fantasy of a middle class life where the norm is going to prestigious colleges and having professional jobs.

However, I am most interested by this post for another reason. I'm currently a Presbyterian Church Young Adult Volunteer living on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, serving a relatively middle class protestant (ie "Evangelical") Church in a neighborhood that has a diverse mixture of both middle and "lower" class residents. The church wants to host a workshop open to the community about the risks of teenage sex/pregnancy. And they want me, as an obviously successful, "wealthy" (by their standards, very much so) North American to help.

The workshop will (supposedly) not be overtly Christian/evangelical in it's format/content. It's supposed to merely be a service to the community to educate the neighborhood youth about the choices they make (the evangelism then comes later...)

I'm curious as to how Edin and Kefalas's findings (which I haven't really read or studied outside of reading this blog post and some reviews of the book on other blogs/Amazon) could apply or not apply to a context outside the US. The "cones" of large South American city is where people hope to realize social mobility. They come from poor(er) rural areas seeking opportunities in the city. The large families here have a HUGE generational gap. The older generations were raised in traditional/non-western ways of being, while their children are immersed in a rapidly modernizing city saturated with US-produced movies, TV, music and of course, the internet, not to mention the western-style education and "work/study hard so you can succeed and get ahead" provided by Peru's schools, which their parents also did not get.

And teenage pregnancy, from what I understand (I've been here only 8 months, so I'm by no means an expert) is still pretty much the "norm," from what I understand. So I'm wondering if you might have any wonderful insights on this, Gruntled (gee, I didn't even talk about the cultural role of the Catholic church...)

balkan said...

The debate about teen mothers makes some assumptions about motherhood and children that our society would not dare apply to parents - including women - who are married, educated, employed (or women who "left" their job to raise kids).

Maybe some young women would rather be Moms than college-educated and, by implication, career women. Maybe they think it would be nice to be a Mom. Careers start with college, so why not start on the Mom track early, if other young women are in college (presumably) for the college track.

Why are we not asking middle or upper middle class young women to justify why they want to go to college and, by extension, have a job.

Maybe some young women have babies so they have something to love and control? Maybe that is the reason anyone has children, and people who do it in the more respectable form don't like their darker reasons for becoming parents thrown in their face by the young mothers who do it on their own.

I dont' know much personally or theoretically about teen mothers.

All I'm asking is why are we making the issue of having a baby the worse thing that could happen to a young woman. It will either keep a poor one poor or make a middle class one stagnant.

Why don't we ask young women who are cramming for a high ACT/SAT score to explain themselves? What about the baby daddies out there?

Maybe it isn't easy to have a kid at any age?

Hmmm, why don't we make it easier to have a kid at any age by a little decent daycare etc. Maybe that is the debate.

Marty said...

balkan,

It harkens back to Gruntle's earlier post about how the rich (aka the not-poor) can afford to keep their individual issues from becoming "social issues". Middle-class kids aren't a net drain on society.

No, it isn't easy having a child. But it's a heck of a lot easier if you aren't poor.

In any case, affordable daycare options abound -- many of these poort mothers rely on their OWN mothers for this -- but that doesn't seem to be lifting them out of poverty.

VA said...

Balkan, I don't think anyone on here has an issue with a woman choosing the "mommy track" over college/career.

But how many self-supporting teen girls do you know? How many can also support even the basic financial needs of a child? How many pregnant teen girls end up marrying a career-driven man who can pay the bills?

Even women who aren't on the "career track" require a source of income to provide for their children.

balkan said...

You all try to make sense of the lives of the poor, by applying either your beliefs or your academic theories.

Behind your arguments is the notion that there is something morally and socially wrong with poverty. Also, there is the implication that people who are poor can change their situation, either through their decisions or through taking advantage of the system.

By extension, there is something wrong with things that keep people poor. In this debate, some views see children as the problem. This assumes parenthood is a luxury of the middle-class.

Here is a quote that implies poor people shouldn't have children because it is a financial drain on society
"Middle-class kids aren't a net drain on society."

Furthermore, "No, it isn't easy having a child. But it's a heck of a lot easier if you aren't poor." Of course it is difficult to do anything when one is poor. Yet that is no excuse to suggest parenthood and family is out of the question for people who face it with difficulty.

Again, the implication that people should move up socially and economically across the generations: "In any case, affordable daycare options abound -- many of these poor mothers rely on their OWN mothers for this -- but that doesn't seem to be lifting them out of poverty." Of course it doesn't. They aren't having children because they want their lives to change socially and economically. They have children because they want to have children. Other people want them to be mobile. Other people think that is a better choice.

There is the quote:
"I don't think anyone on here has an issue with a woman choosing the "mommy track" over college/career."

Really? How generous of you. Yet that's what poor teen girls have done. So, it seems that your argument is actually that women can choose the mommy track over college/career, only if she is middle class. I guess because you don't like poor people, and you don't want people to be poor, and you don't want to pay for their poor people problems, and you think they shouldn't be poor.

My arguments are that it is far better to understand the world of people different from us - I guess no one commenting on this blog is poor - by understanding if from their perspective, what is important to them, rather than what is important to us.

In addition, there is the argument that children are keeping people poor. What is the reply from children? Oh, right, children don't have a voice.

It is really easy, then, to point to children as an explanation of why these women stay poor.

Also, using children in this debate puts them in the group of things that are considered related to poverty - that children are just for people who can afford them. Maybe poor people don't buy that.

Marty said...

Behind your arguments is the notion that there is something morally and socially wrong with poverty. Only if your poverty is a "net drain" on your neighbors time and resources. There's nothing inherently wrong with poverty, but there is something inherently wrong with being a burden to your fellow man.

VA said...

Balkan, I think you're deliberately misunderstanding me, and Gruntled's entire post.

The issue isn't that these young pregnant teens are choosing to be mothers instead of choosing to go to college - they are not "choosing" anything. They engage in behavior that they know to be risky because they don't really care whether or not they get pregnant. They don't consider the consequences of having a child and being unable to provide for it or for themselves.

There are lots of good reasons to have children. "Because I didn't care if I got pregnant or not" is not one of them, for a woman at any socioeconomic level.

-AL said...

If anyone wants to explore this topic further, there is an excellent documentary called "Baby Love" (a bit dated, but still relevant), which has urban, low SES, minority teenage mothers discussing how and "why" they became pregnant. It's a unique opportunity to hear the voices so often spoken for and about. A lot of what the girls say is that babies are a way for them to have a stable family (which they say they lack) and their babies will love them unconditionally.

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