Back when I was still an active academic, much of my research focus was on the role of education in intergenerational poverty. My dissertation proposed the radical Enlightenment idea of focusing the US educational system on the goal of helping each individual reach their full human potential through democratic empowerment. My vision was opposed to the current debate that pits those who believe the schools should be used to promote economic growth on one hand and those who believe the schools should be used to rearrange society based on group membership (race, language, income, gender, sexual identification…ad infinitum) to achieve uniformity. I proposed that both approaches are destructive to both children and democratic society.
As part of my research, I spent a great deal of time pouring over the research and statistical data dealing with intergenerational poverty in the US. A key finding was that the vast majority of people who are in poverty today will not be so six months from now. However, there is a core group who are in poverty all their life, as were their mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers. I say grandmothers, because one of the key factors in intergenerational poverty is the lack of fathers who stick around to provide financial and emotional support. This core group of intergenerational poor is far larger in the US than it is in other industrialized nations. The question is why.
A popular media trope is how the US educational system is so far behind the other industrialized nations. Often this is coupled with calls for increased funding, even though the US spends far more on education than most other rich countries. In working on my dissertation, I attempted to look beyond the popular rhetoric to consider what was really going on.
When I pulled apart the data, what I found was if we statistically reduce the core group of people in intergenerational poverty to the same percentage it is in, let’s say Norway, we would find that the US has the finest educational system in the world. The same is true in measures of infant mortality and violence and overall health. If we do not consider the disproportionate number of people who are in permanent poverty, the US stands to lead the world in most of these domains.
But of course the US lags in all those areas. The US doesn’t have an education problem or a health crisis or gun violence problem. The US has an intergenerational poverty problem. That fact led me to ask, why is it so much worse in the US than other industrialized countries?
Yes, there are factors unique to the US, such as we are the most culturally and racially heterogeneous nation on earth. And there is the fact that none of the other industrialized nations to which we compare ourselves share the legacy of African slavery. In both of these issues, we are far more similar to South American than European or Asian countries. However; one factor stands out in my research above all others. Sex. OK, not really sex, but rather the rate of teen pregnancy. The rate of teen pregnancy in the United States exceeds all other advanced countries, some by as much as 700%. Compared to our Canadian neighbors to the north the US has a teen pregnancy rate 300% higher!
Why is this a cause of intergenerational poverty? I’ll answer via a composite illustration of what I saw as a pattern in my years as a social worker.
An impoverished 15-year-old girl has a baby. Her education is severely impacted, if not stopped. Her chances of gaining the necessary education or skills to advance out of poverty are massively reduced; the chances the father will provide long-term financial or emotional support are about zero. Her chances of having a second and third child are very high as she looks for stability in a domestic relationship and reliable birth control is difficult to come by for the poor. Each new child divides her limited financial and emotional resources into smaller parts for each child. By her early twenties, she is stuck in a trap, overwhelmed by the demands of several growing children, yet she is just now mature enough to make long-term plans, yet what plans can she make that will lift her from poverty?
I had case after case just like this. These young women enter their 20’s so far in a hole that they will struggle for a lifetime to dig out. As a social worker, it was disheartening because all too often I knew if I were in that woman’s place, with my skills and education, I could not pull myself out of poverty, so how was a 20-year-old without a high school diploma supposed to do so.?
But, that is not the worst part of this tragic problem. The real tragedy is that while this young woman was foundering, those few years, perhaps as few as five, her children were profoundly impacted by the chaos around their “child mom” trying to put her own life together. My experience, and research, says poverty in those few short years of early childhood and the attending other problems, has a lasting impact on children.
For years we have known that young children in poverty have significantly less exposure to words and ideas that form the foundation for later academic success. Recent neurological research finds that children who are impoverished during those formative years have different brain development patterns than other children. Even worse is that those patterns cannot be reversed by later intervention. Further, we know that young children raised in a home without stable adult parent figures are likely to suffer with lifelong problems with forming stable relationships. All of this contributes to the increased likelihood that girls raised in poverty by teen moms are much more likely to become teen moms themselves and to repeat the cycle.
Some of the kids will make it out of poverty; however, the simple fact is that the educated and wealthy class of women are not having children until the age that the impoverished class of women are becoming grandmothers. And because the “educated class” of women are having half as many kids, we have a situation that even if half the girls born by teen mom’s do not become a teen mom themselves, the number and percentage of that population will continue to grow. On top of all these other contributing problems is the aggressive efforts of conservatives to limit (or end) access to abortion while at the same time seeking to make contraception less available to teens and opposing school sex education programs; all of which is a recipe for more teenage mothers.
Thus, the gap between the haves and have-not will continue to grow as well. The simple truth is that the United States will never resolve the other big social issues until the teen birth rate is dramatically reduced!
Yet none of the politicians or pundits want to touch the real answers to this ever so sensitive question that crosses into issues of race, sex and religion.
Do American teens screw more often than other kids?
The evidence is they do not. However, the poorest children start sex very early, with age 13 becoming common. One study of urban elementary school students found 18% of 13 year old boys had already had sexual intercourse. Further, over half the boys said they expected to do so in the next year as did a quarter of the girls. To make this all more complicated both boys and girls are reaching sexual maturity earlier and earlier.
So what should we do? Do we launch a massive “sex is bad” campaign? No. We’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. Beyond that it’s a lie, sex is not bad. Kids see through the lie and it discredits the other things adults say about sex, like birth control and sexual safety.
We should be asking why are girls getting pregnant in the US so much more often than girls in other developed countries.
Again, the poverty issue comes up. Family warmth and school success are inversely related to very early sexual activity as well as the rate of engagement in high-risk sexual behaviors. Further, the same sexual risk factors are driven up by having a teenage mother and spending one’s early years in poverty. See the cycle? Young people who can’t do anything else to feel good and feel good about themselves can fuck. Sex is available and lets them feel good and good about themselves, and it is accessible to the poorest teenager. Because of that, sex becomes their primary source of meaning and pleasure… not school, not sports, not friendships and not making long-term goals of personal success. Girls who get very little positive attention know having a baby will get them lots of attention. I had a client tell me once “The only thing I know how to do good is make babies.” She was 25 and had five kids to five different men. This points out the only issue here is not just access to birth control, but part of a complex system of poverty, empowerment and self-value.
So what is to be done?
First and foremost we must undermine the sex in the closet culture. As long as teen sexuality is treated by adult authority figures as inherently bad it will be impossible to have a meaningful impact on teen (and pre-teen) attitudes about sex. The US is hyper-sexualized on one hand, but highly puritanical on the other. As long as depictions on TV and movies of murder are listed as OK for children under 13 with just a suggestion of parental guidance, yet a single fleeting image of an erect penis demands no child under 17 can ever see the movie; kids will continue to see sex as both dirty and desirable because it is so forbidden. Murder is not ever a part of a positive “grown-up” life, but sex is.
It might be surprising to my readers to know that very few of my low-income clients ever took a sex-positive approach with their own children, especially the girls. I supposed their sex-negative attitude was informed both by their own experiences with sexual exploitation and by their desire to teach what they assume to be middle-class sexual values. As bizarre as it may seem, low-income mothers seem to think that the path to the middle class for their girls lies in teaching them that sex is inherently bad and that “good girls” don’t have sex… thus setting their own daughters up for the same self-defeating, self-loathing their mother’s taught them to have. Sadly, since for most of my career, I was a public school employee, I could not directly address the harm they were doing with embracing the sex-negative culture as I would like to have.
Thus, I believe to address the issue of intergenerational poverty in the US, we need to implement universal psychosocial sexual education in our schools, beginning at the early grades.
We as a nation must acknowledge that sexuality is a part of positive social interactions. Sexual constructs, taught from the earliest years, impact all our social interactions. The religious right has worked very diligently to derail public discussion of sexuality and sex education for generations and in 2023 has upped their attacks to a level not seen since the 1950’s.
Sadly, however, some on the left are also working to demonize nearly all references to sexuality in the public sphere, which only serves to make matters worse. In an effort to combat exploitation, many feminists have become nearly as sex-negative as the religious right. Any effort to suppress or marginalize sexuality, no matter the reason, works to push teens to feel shame for their sexuality and for sex… and thus to compound the problem.
When I used to do lectures to parents on children and sexuality, I always said “sex education begins at birth.” Young children, not just teens, have a steady diet of media depicting casual and very enjoyable sex, but the adults in their life rarely show them about how that fits into a healthy and nurturing lifestyle. Sadly too many children in poverty are surrounded by sex, but all too often in their mother’s life, it is transactional or exploitive. When I worked with teens I often heard about how they witnessed their mother’s sexually abused and/or exploited by boyfriends. When I worked with young mothers I heard how they felt trapped and obligated to put up with their boyfriend’s behavior because they had no other place to go and/or were afraid of violence if they resisted.
In a perfect world I would have been able to help every mother out of such situations, but rarely did I have great options that would keep her and her kids safe and secure over the long run. The sad truth is that young children in poverty too often see phony commercialized sexuality in media countered by a much darker reality of sex as a weapon up close. Yes, sexual abuse happens in middle-class homes and to educated women; but young impoverished mothers are particularly disempowered and subject to sexual exploitation and abuse. Further, in overcrowded impoverished homes the lack of private space makes this sex-negative behavior far more a part of the young child’s life than it would be in a large home.
So, to build a sex-positive viewpoint for impoverished children that will empower them to make good choices as teens and adults, we must expose them to a whole social landscape of interrelated parts, including positive sexual expression. By the time children are moving into physical sexual maturity (now around 13), the discussion about positive and empowered sexuality must be very direct. At the very least we must teach these young people ownership of their sexuality and the difference between positive sexual exploration and negative exploitation.
At the same time we should, we must, very directly address the issue of birth control as a core issue of sexual autonomy. Schools in the US have for many years taught 5th & 6th grade girls about their periods and hygiene, but we should add birth control to that process. Yes, boys should be taught about birth control as well, but in the real world, girls cannot rely on her male partner to use or even want birth control. Young girls must be taught that they control their bodies and they have the right to exercise that control with every partner. Young girls must clearly be taught that sex is only bad if it is forced upon them (physically or psychologically). They must know that they alone choose when they are ready to become sexually active. They must understand that if birth control is not used it is their future that is at risk, not necessarily the boy’s. We must reach girls who have been raised in an environment where women are subject to the will of “their man”, and convince them that they have the right and the power to control their sexuality and their fertility.
Further, just as getting “your shots” is a universal and normal part of growing up, so should birth control. The government has long provided inoculations for children at no expense, so too we must provide semi-permanent birth control easily available to all young women. I would go as far as to say that just like all kids get immunized unless there is a very good reason not to, we should make the implantation of an IUD (or something similar) a normal part of a girl’s first post-menarche doctor’s visit. This does not mean they should have sex afterward, any more than people should deliberately spend time around people with chicken pox after their vaccination. By making it universal, it would end the idea that “oh she’s on birth control so she’s available for sex” mindset of teens.
Middle-class parents put their teen daughters on birth control all the time. However, they use the excuse they are putting their daughters on hormonal birth control so as to “regulate their period”, when in-fact that is very often a secondary consideration, or an outright cover story. Middle-class, educated parents are far more likely to be proactive with their daughter’s birth control for several reasons, not the least being they don’t see their daughter being on birth control as a stigma. This disproportionate use of highly effective teen birth control by middle-class teens further exacerbates the gap between the rich and poor.
While it is absolutely true that poor children have more sex and earlier than middle-class kids, however, their pregnancy rate is far higher than can be attributed to poverty alone. Access to convenient and effective birth control makes a huge difference in teen pregnancy rates; however, the impoverished teens that need it most, are the least likely to have ready access. And, the impoverished teens (and their children) will pay the highest price for an unplanned pregnancy. The current efforts to restrict access to abortion will NOT stop the middle class and wealthy from getting abortions for their teenage daughters who will simply be transported to nearby states where it is legal, but it will affect the poor.
Finally, the legal framework must be changed to remove the hodgepodge of state laws that send some people to prison for decades for doing things that are legal in the next state over. Many of the US states already have a comprehensive 16-year-old age of consent, I propose that be declared a human right and adopted nationwide. I would however, go further and clearly set into law that 16 years old is the age of sexual emancipation (adulthood). This would make it crystal clear to teens that their body is their own at a reasonable age. Sixteen-year-olds should have full guaranteed rights to make their own choices about birth control, sexual health issues and their own sexual behavior. Further we need to de-criminalize consensual sexual behavior between age mates. Current law in many states make parents of teens liable if they provide birth control to their kids who have not reached the age of consent (which in some states is 18). The effect of this is that many sexually active teens cannot admit they are so and their parents cannot legally provide not only birth control but a safe place to have sex at home out of fear of prosecution for child abuse. This fear of prosecution for child abuse is most acute in impoverished homes because rarely do child protective agencies go after middle-class parents.
The real benefit in sexual emancipation is that it puts both the power and responsibility squarely in the hands of the teen. We know empowering teens to make their own choices leads to better sexual choices and lower pregnancy rates (and the inverse is true as well). Sexual emancipation of 16-year-olds would also free high schools to treat upperclassmen as the full sexual adults they clearly are. As a capstone to the public school sex-positive social curriculum, for these students sexual education could and should deal with sex in more than just biological terms. It should be very explicit & visually graphic to drive home the physical and mental health components of sex as part of their adult lives. There are “best practices” in relationships that have a sexual component, as well as factual knowledge about what to give and how to give it, they also need to know what to expect from their sexual partners.
You might not know it, but real topics like this are being taught in high school today. It is a part of the high school Advanced Placement Psychology course. I taught that course for several years, and as we used a college-level textbook, it discussed things like the sexual arousal pattern in explicit terms (and pictures). My students, as part of that chapter, learned about things like the sexual erogenous zones of men and women and how women experience orgasms as compared to men. Once again, children raised in poverty rarely have access to this class, it is rarely offered in poor schools and only the highest-performing high schoolers get to take it (which normally means the richest). Thus those teens least likely to get pregnant have access to this empowering knowledge, but those who most need it are denied.
In conclusion, it is imperative that we look long and hard at the issues that lead to our country’s extraordinary high teen pregnancy rate. Let me be clear there are other factors that lead to low-income teen pregnancy that I have not discussed here, but we must change the way we address sexuality in our legal system and schools if we are to make a real dent in our high rate of intergenerational poverty.