New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has drawn the ire of the poverty-industrial complex for launching a gutsy ad campaign against teen pregnancy. Posters in thousands of bus shelters and subways show tiny tots bewailing the bad news about teen pregnancy. “Because you had me as a teen,” cries one, “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school.” Other stressed-out toddlers warn of the financial burdens their unwed mothers will face and the near certainty that their fathers won’t stick around. One little sage identifies the simplest way to avoid poverty: graduate from high school, get a job, and wait until marriage before having a child.
These are all incontrovertible facts that social science has known for decades but that professors and politicians have not dared inject into the public sphere. And the reason for their reticence is fully on display in the advocacy world’s reaction to the ad campaign. Like clockwork, Planned Parenthood of New York put out a press release blasting the ads for “stigmatizing” teen parents. Equally predictably, the New York Times provided a platform to amplify the group’s complaint: “Haydee Morales, vice president for education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City, [told the Times that] the organization was ‘shocked and taken aback’ by the tone of the new campaign. ‘Hurting and shaming communities is not what’s going to bring teen pregnancy rates down,’ she added.”
Less predictable was the charge in the Planned Parenthood press release that the posters “perpetuate gender stereotypes.” Even the most seasoned observers of the academic-advocacy-victimology axis might not have seen this one coming. Presumably, the ads “perpetuate gender stereotypes” by pointing out to “Dad” the costs of child support and to “Mom” that when the father takes off, as he likely will, she’ll be left holding the diaper bag. It appears that we have a new politically correct fantasy: unwed teen fathers are as likely to be the sole provider for their child as teen moms.
The backlash illustrates two defining features of contemporary poverty discourse. First is the stigma against stigma. Accusing someone of being stigmatizing is almost as powerful a means of silencing him as calling him a racist. For millennia, humans relied on social disapproval to reduce behavior that produced disproportionate costs to individuals and the community. Now, however, one cannot point out the bad consequences of actions that generate multigenerational poverty, because that would be “judgmental.” Even abstract statements of fact, like those in the Bloomberg ad campaign, are now reviled as insensitive, even when not directed at any particular individual.
The second defining figure of our poverty discourse is the philosophical divide over poverty and causality. Planned Parenthood’s Morales told the Times that the ad campaign’s message—that teenage pregnancy leads to poverty—was “backward,” in the Times’s words. “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy,” she said. The question of whether poverty is the all-encompassing explanation for self-defeating behaviors or the result of those behaviors—where, in other words, personal responsibility ends and ineluctable social causes begin—forms a dividing line between what may be loosely characterized as the liberal and conservative worldviews. There are some situations where one could plausibly argue that a person’s environment is so lousy that it is unfair to expect him to act responsibly—a student in a hopelessly chaotic classroom, say, who doesn’t do his schoolwork. But it requires an extremely strained storyline to maintain that the decision about whether to have intercourse and whether to use contraception is forced on teens by “poverty” (even assuming that New York’s unwed teen parents, many of whom possess the latest handheld electronic devices and cutting-edge sneakers, may be properly characterized as poverty-stricken). Free or low-cost contraception, including the morning-after pill, is widely available to New York teens, including in their own high schools. Is the lack of self-control or the inability to plan ahead also the result, rather than the cause, of poverty? The advocates would say yes.
Even were it the case that poverty indeed causes teen pregnancy, crime, or any of the other destructive behaviors that the advocates claim are economically determined, surely it is better to tell children and teens that they have the power to determine their own fate through hard work and self-control, rather than sending the message that society expects them to fail.
Intolerance for the poverty excuse and a universal expectation of personal responsibility would put the poverty-industrial complex out of business, of course, which is why Planned Parenthood admonishes the Bloomberg administration instead: “It’s time we focus on the root causes [of teen pregnancy] rather than point fingers at teen parents and their children.” The implication that the administration is not already focusing on what Planned Parenthood deems the “root causes” of teen pregnancy is hilarious. New York City has spent billions over the decades “fighting poverty” through social-service programs and a smorgasbord of transfer payments. Bloomberg has also liberally poured taxpayer dollars into family-planning services, sex education, and—it has come to this—“relationship education” for students.
Nearly as dangerous as Planned Parenthood’s philosophical position on individual will are the group’s factual claims about teen pregnancy. “Teenage parenthood is simply not the disastrous and life-compromising event these ads portray,” the group asserts in its press release, shamelessly denying the overwhelming evidence. The city’s farsighted welfare commissioner, Robert Doar, who pioneered the ad campaign, knows better. To be sure, one can always find an individual teen mother here or there who has raised law-abiding, successful children. But such exceptions don’t disprove the rule that teen parenting is, on average, a tragedy for parent, child, and society. The administration’s anti-teen-pregnancy campaign could be one of its most important initiatives if the campaign inspires public figures elsewhere (including New York governor Andrew Cuomo) to get some backbone and follow suit.
The bigger issue for society is single parenting generally, not just among teens, as the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin has pointed out. The consequences of teen parenting—higher family rates of criminal activity, welfare dependency, and educational failure—are no less present when older single mothers have children. And whereas unwed teen births have actually declined over the last two decades, illegitimacy among adults has steadily risen, reaching nearly 41 percent of all births in 2011 (and a catastrophic 72 percent of black births and 53 percent of Hispanic births). By focusing only on teen births, the New York campaign runs a slight risk of implying that single parenting by adults is not an equal problem. But that’s a risk worth taking, and the ads’ facts about financial stress easily translate to the 20-something context.
Given the longstanding bipartisan consensus among policy wonks and social scientists on the costs of teen parenting, one might have thought that the city’s effort to publicize those costs would be universally welcomed. The hysterical reaction against the city’s public-service announcements, however, shows how much courage it took the Bloomberg administration to say even that much—and how divided the political world remains over the question of poverty and personal responsibility.