Last month, a minor controversy erupted over a series of provocative new public service announcements sponsored by New York city’s Department of Social Services that aim to inform teenagers, in a vivid and accessible way, the costs associated with having a child as a teenager. Some have argued that the ads might prove counterproductive while others have defended them as a realistic portrait of the consequences of teen motherhood. As Sarah Kliff reminds us, teen pregnancy has gone down by 42 percent since 1991 and the teen birth rate has gone down by 49 percent over the same interval. But the educational and labor market outcomes of children born to teen mothers continue to lag behind those of mothers who have children later in life. One of the ads notes that the children of teen mothers “are twice as likely not to graduate than kids whose moms were over age 22,” while others describe the high cost of raising a child, the likelihood that the relationship a teen mother forms with the father of her child will be temporary, and, interestingly, the fact that the fathers of the children of teen mothers will be obligated to provide financial support for their children.
The stereotype about men who father children as teenagers is that they tend to be impulsive and present-oriented, and so efforts to highlight the long-term costs of fathering a child make intuitive sense. The tricky part is crafting messages that will resonate. In Expanding Work Programs for Poor Men, the New York University political scientist Lawrence Mead, who is perhaps best known for his work on welfare reform, devotes considerable attention to the evolution of child support enforcement (CSE). Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives in Congress began to press for more aggressive child support enforcement, on the grounds that it might help contain the increase in social welfare expenditures associated with family disruption. In the years since, a number of innovations have helped increase the effectiveness of the child support enforcement system, e.g., (a) the process of acknowledging paternity has been greatly streamlined; (b) the process of establishing child support orders has been routinized, thus limiting discretion on the part of judges that had once led to a great deal of inconsistency; (c) since federal legislation passed in 1984 and 1988, states are effectively obligated to implement wage withholding of child support, an initiative that led to a significant increase in collections; and (d) improved interstate enforcement due to common procedures across states and a federal data system.
Mead explains that while CSE had traditionally ignored less-skilled men, many of whom are only intermittently attached to the labor market, the system can now press nonworking men to take part in mandatory work programs. CSE is far from perfect. As of 2005, 54 percent of eligible poor mothers had a child support award and 45 percent received at least some payment, a substantial increase over the 38 percent and 18 percent numbers of 1978. But efforts to increase CSE even further have, according to Mead, run into numerous roadblocks. Highly automated collection systems see to it that fathers who have acknowledged paternity and who work in the formal economy are paying child support, but this, suffice it to say, doesn’t capture the entire universe of noncustodial fathers. This leads Mead to advocate greater use of mandatory work programs, a subject I intend to revisit in a forthcoming issue of National Review.
But for now, think about the risks associated with fathering a child out-of-wedlock as a teen: it is extremely unlikely that your relationship with the mother of your child will prove durable; the mother of your child will likely have a difficult time completing high school let alone college, raising the risk that her lifetime earnings will be very low and that she will be forced to rely heavily on public assistance; and this will trigger an extensive CSE apparatus that will find you and dock your pay if you ever work a job in the mainstream economy, which is the only reliable path to achieving some modicum of stability and economic advancement.
This is definitely news you can use.