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Destinies of the Disadvantaged

The Politics of Teen Childbearing

Frank F. Furstenberg

Publication Year: 2007

Teen childbearing has risen to frighteningly high levels over the last four decades, jeopardizing the life chances of young parents and their offspring alike, particularly among minority communities. Or at least, that’s what politicians on the right and left often tell us, and what the American public largely believes. But sociologist Frank Furstenberg argues that the conventional wisdom distorts reality. In Destinies of the Disadvantaged, Furstenberg traces the history of public concern over teen pregnancy, exploring why this topic has become so politically powerful, and so misunderstood. Based on over forty years of Furstenberg’s research on teen childbearing, Destinies of the Disadvantaged relates how the issue emerged from obscurity to become one of the most heated social controversies in America. Both slipshod research by social scientists and opportunistic grandstanding by politicians have contributed to public misunderstanding of the issue. Although out-of-wedlock teen pregnancy rose notably between 1960 and 1990—a cause for concern given the burdens of single motherhood at a young age—this trend did not reflect a rise in the rate of overall teen pregnancies. In fact, teen pregnancy actually declined dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s. The number of unmarried teenage mothers rose after 1960, not because more young women became pregnant, but because those who did increasingly chose not to rush into marriage. Furstenberg shows how early social science research on this topic exaggerated the adverse consequences of early parenthood both for young parents and for their children. Researchers also inaccurately portrayed single teenage motherhood as a phenomenon concentrated among minorities. Both of these misapprehensions skewed subsequent political debates. The issue became a public obsession and remained so during the 1990s, even as rates of out-of-wedlock teen childbearing plummeted. Addressing teen pregnancy was originally a liberal cause, led by advocates of family planning services, legalized abortion, and social welfare programs for single mothers. The issue was later adopted by conservatives, who argued that those liberal remedies were encouraging teen parenthood. According to Furstenberg, the flexible political usefulness of the issue explains its hold on political discourse. The politics of teen parenthood is a fascinating case study in the abuse of social science for political ends. In Destinies of the Disadvantaged, Furstenberg brings that tale to life with the perspective of a historian and the insight of an insider, and provides the straight facts needed to craft effective policies to address teen pregnancy.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

About the Author

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

THIS VOLUME IS the final in a trilogy of books on the Baltimore Study, a project launched in the mid-1960s when I began to follow a cohort of teen mothers who were interviewed during pregnancy and six subsequent times over the next thirty years. Over the last four decades, I have seen the issue of teenage childbearing go from near social invisibility to garner greater and greater national...

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1. The History of Teenage Childbearing as a Social Problem

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pp. 1-23

A CENTURY FROM NOW, social and demographic historians may be pondering the question of why the topic of teenage childbearing suddenly became so prominent in America during the last several decades of the twentieth century. The issue emerged from social invisibility during the 1950s and early 1960s, when rates of childbearing among teens reached historical peaks, and rose to a...

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2. From Teenage Mother to Midlife Matriarch

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pp. 24-52

WHEN ARTHUR CAMPBELL (1968) wrote his scenario of the life course of teenage mothers in 1968, quoted in the previous chapter, only scant evidence existed on the social and economic consequences of teenage childbearing. Campbell was largely surmising the adverse effects of having a child early in life based on cross-sectional comparisons of women whose first birth occurred in...

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3. The Next Generation

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pp. 53-72

THE PREVIOUS CHAPTER reviewed the evidence calling into question just how much teenage childbearing compromises the life prospects of young mothers in later life. I concluded that popular accounts in the media, the views often expressed by advocates, and even professional writings overstate the costs to young mothers when taking fuller measure of their circumstances prior to parenthood....

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4. Sexuality and Reproductive Health

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pp. 73-105

IN THE EARLIER chapters of this book, I assembled evidence showing that teenage childbearing has never been quite the problem that most Americans believe it to be. For a host of reasons, the issue has assumed greater political importance and cultural significance than has ever been warranted by either demographic trends or the impact on young mothers and their offspring. Rather than being a primary...

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5. Supporting Marriage

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pp. 106-136

AT THE BEGINNING of the Baltimore Study, public concern about the decline of marriage was not yet on the political agenda. Most young adults in the United States still married at ages that by present-day standards seem shockingly young. In 1965 the median age of marriage had already started its upward trend but still stood at 20.6 for women and 22.8 for men. Close to 40 percent of...

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6. Teenage Childbearing and Welfare Reform

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pp. 137-159

SOON AFTER RWANDA Powers discovered she was pregnant, she applied for and received public assistance to help support her child while she finished school. Although the father of the baby was in jail, Rwanda explained to the interviewer, Mrs. Blau, that they were planning to marry as soon as he was released. That did not happen. A year after her first child was born, Rwanda was pregnant...

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7. Destinies of the Disadvantaged

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pp. 160-174

THE EARLY CHAPTERS of this book describe the experiences of the teenage mothers in Baltimore and their families, whose lives I followed for more than three decades. Their experiences reveal a surprising fact: early childbearing, which most policymakers believe to be a powerful source of disadvantage to young mothers, had only modest effects on their prospects in later life, after taking into account their circumstances prior to becoming pregnant. This finding...


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pp. 175-196


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pp. 197-204

E-ISBN-13: 9781610442343
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871542748
Print-ISBN-10: 0871542749

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2007