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Poverty drives teens to early motherhood

Amanda Simsek, a junior in high school, didn't realize she had committed a crime when she made love with her boyfriend. But authorities in Emmett, Idaho, charged the pregnant teenager with criminal fornication by resurrecting a little-known 1921 state law that holds that "any unmarried person who shall have sex with an unmarried person of the opposite sex shall be found guilty of fornication." Simsek now has a criminal record.

Across the United States, cities and states are trying to stem what they view as a national epidemic in teenage pregnancy. But is there really an epidemic?

All societies create myths, but they are eventually debunked if they are not grounded in reality. In his new book, Up From Conservatism; Why the Right Is Wrong for America, former conservative Michael Lind describes the illegitimacy epidemic as one of "the great conservative hoaxes of our time."

Even more convincing is Dubious Conceptions, Kristin Luker's stunning new account of how both liberals and conservatives "constructed" an epidemic of teenage pregnancy. Luker's meticulous research challenges the myth of an epidemic and concludes that it is poverty that causes teen pregnancy and not the reverse.

Take into account these facts:

The birth rate among teenagers has not been rising.

Most unwed mothers are not teenagers.

Teenagers account for fewer than 10 percent of people on welfare.

The United States has the highest proportion of pregnant teens in the developed world, yet offers less assistance to unmarried mothers _ child care, health care _ than any other industrialized nation. Aid to Families With Dependent Children accounts for a mere 3 percent of the annual federal budget.

Eighty percent of unwed teenage mothers grew up in extreme poverty.

Despite conservative efforts to portray unwed teenage mothers as calculating creatures scheming how to get a government check, welfare cuts during the past 20 years have not resulted in a decline in teenage pregnancies.

If there is no epidemic, why have we devoted so much moral and political capital to the crisis of teenage pregnancy?

In part, it is because Americans are still reeling from the momentous sexual, economic and social changes of the last three decades. In the 1960s, birth control ruptured the connection between sex and procreation. In the '70s, the legalization of abortion decoupled pregnancy and birth. By the '80s, a skyrocketing divorce rate had created vast numbers of "post-modern" families.

At the same time, liberals and conservatives began to build separate cases for pregnancy as a cause of poverty. It was Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who first brought the topic of teenage pregnancy to the public's attention. Arguing that teen pregnancy caused poverty, he sought legislation in 1975 that would provide publicly funded contraception and training programs to the "babies that were having babies."

Meanwhile, the growing conservative movement waged a campaign that blamed teenagers for their degraded values and justified punitive welfare cuts. Conservatives insisted that all teenagers must abstain from sex.

Though they differed over the solution, liberals and conservatives agreed: Teenage pregnancy causes poverty.

Challenging this consensus, Luker argues that "early childbearing doesn't make young women poor; rather it is poverty that makes women bear children at an early age. Society should not worry about some epidemic of "teenage pregnancy,' but about the hopeless, discouraged and empty lives that early childbearing denotes."

Interestingly, it is not the behavior of teenagers that has changed. It is middle-class women who have broken with the traditional American pattern of early childbearing. Investing in their futures, middle-class women have begun to postpone having children. In contrast, teenagers growing up in severe poverty face a dearth of opportunities for personal and professional fulfillment. Teenage mothers view childbearing as the one thing they can do that is socially responsible, gives meaning to their lives and offers hope for the future.

If poverty causes teenage pregnancy, we should be considering the political and policy changes required to address the real epidemic of widespread destitution. Ah, but it's so much more fun to blame teenagers for their impulsive, immature sexual behavior.

Ruth Rosen, a professor of history at University of California, Davis, writes regularly on politics and culture.

Special to Los Angeles Times