Elizabeth Sullivan of Clearwater asked questions about several issues in a letter to the editor published Sept. 26 in the North Pinellas regional sections of the Times. But it was her question about public support of teen-age mothers that created the most reaction. "Why am I expected to support these unmarried teen-age mothers?" she asked. "She and her partner chose to have sex, and therefore that child is their responsibility, not mine. They should be taught to take the consequences."
Not long after, letters started coming in from teen-age mothers and expectant teen-agers in Pinellas County.
"Tax support works both ways. Her taxes help our future investment (our children), our taxes help support her future investment (retirement)," said a letter signed by eight students in a Clearwater High School program for teen mothers.
"Your investment in teen parents not only helps us, but helps the whole community," stated a letter signed by another seven Clearwater High teen parents. "Mrs. Sullivan is being selfish . . . We realize our mistakes and we are paying the consequences for them now."
An envelope of letters from teen mothers going to school at Gibbs High in St. Petersburg arrived.
"I understand . . . If I had to pay out of my taxes for all these teen mothers who are not married, I'd be mad, too," wrote H. Appling. But, "I'm paying my own bills and taking care of my responsibilities. So you're not paying for all the teen mothers."
"A lot of teen parents work and we also pay taxes," wrote Sirena Williams. "I don't think it's right for her to stereotype all teen parents so it seems we're all getting federal help."
Reaction by teen parents aside, Mrs. Sullivan's letter put on the table a question many people no doubt have asked themselves. This newspaper routinely receives similar letters after stories appear on its pages about teen-agers and their babies.
Some of the teen-agers who wrote letters in response to Mrs. Sullivan's letter said they are not a burden to taxpayers because they are not on welfare. Perhaps those students do not realize that taxpayers provide the special educational program they are enrolled in, the parenting class they take at school, and day care for their children during the school day. If they didn't have insurance, taxpayers may have picked up part of the bill for their hospital care when their babies were born.
Not all teen parents are on welfare.But last year the federal government spent more than $21-billion on welfare programs for families started by teen-agers, up almost $2-billion from the year before. That doesn't include the money spent by states, counties and cities on services for teen parents.
There is no denying that teen parents have an impact on taxpayers. Should they be taught to take responsibility for their own mistakes? Certainly. Does that mean public support for programs that help teen parents and their children survive and prosper should be withdrawn? Not on your life.
By almost any measure, the costs of leaving teen parents and their babies to struggle alone would be far greater than the cost of providing financial and educational assistance until they can make it on their own.
Without those programs, an already large pool of undereducated young women and children destined to lives of poverty and welfare assistance would grow. Programs like the ones at Gibbs and Clearwater high schools are helping teen-agers stay in school and are allowing their children to get good, professional care. Other programs later will help these young mothers go on to community colleges or other training programs. These programs are changing the destinies of teen-age mothers.
What if welfare programs for teen parents were cut off? After all, these are teen-agers who chose to have sex, right?
But who would suffer the consequences of such a course? Society, and little children with empty bellies and no hope. Surely we are not a society that would teach morality lessons to teen parents by letting their children go hungry.
Children who have had deficient upbringings are more likely to do poorly in school, become dropouts, develop physical problems, turn to crime and become teen-age parents themselves. We can try to interrupt this cycle today, using public funding to give today's teen parents better options, or we can let the cycle continue into infinity.
In Florida last year, a teen birth occurred every 20 minutes. Twice each day, a girl age 14 or younger had a baby. Those statistics from Key Facts About the Children, an annual publication of the Florida Center for Children and Youth, point out the need for increased funding for prevention programs.
Only this month, sex education for all Florida students finally became law. The new program will ensure that all students learn how to prevent pregnancy and improve their health. They will get information about the physical and emotional problems of teen pregnancy and begin basic study of parenting.
With the rate of teen pregnancies in this country growing, we must increase our commitment to prevention programs and to helping teen parents and their children broaden their horizons. Our society cannot afford the alternative.