Putting the blame on teen parents

April 8, 2013

Blair Ellis reports on ads posted on New York subways that shame teen parents--while the city cuts resources from programs that might make young parents' lives easier.

NEW YORK CITY has launched a campaign of ads in subways and bus shelters across the city that officials say is supposed to provide teens with the facts they need to know about pregnancy. But the $400,000 the city wasted on scare ads stigmatizing young parents could have been better spent on any number of things--like making sex education widely available or providing the financial resources that young parents lack.

New York's Human Resources Administration (HRA), a mayoral agency in charge of social services programs, launched the ad campaign called "Think Being A Teen Parent Won't Cost You?"

The ads feature images of teary non-white toddlers alongside messages, written in child-like handwriting, like "Honestly Mom...chances are he won't stay with you. What happens to me?" and "If you finish high school, get a job and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty."

In addition to the posters, the campaign features a text message alert system that teens can sign up for, offering a choose-your-own adventure "game" where you can follow the life of a pregnant teen mother named Anaya or her boyfriend Louis through a series of challenges--such as Anaya's best friend calling her a fat loser at prom or her parents shunning her.

One of the ads in New York's campaign to shame teen moms
One of the ads in New York's campaign to shame teen moms

The campaign, two years in the making, is headed up by Robert Doar, who Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed HRA commissioner in 2007. Another initiative of Doar's is NYC DADS, which "goes after" Black and Brown "deadbeat dads" to enforce child support.

Doar is responsible for strictly enforcing job requirement laws, which have helped cut welfare caseloads in New York City from 1.1 million to 360,000 since Bloomberg has been in office. Last year, Doar cost the city $750,000 when he and his administration were found guilty of discriminating against Sandra Glaves-Morgan, a Black city official working for his agency, who was demoted and had her salary cut and her duties reassigned to less qualified white men and women.

BLOOMBERG'S ADMINISTRATION has a history of using campaigns like these to attribute the conditions endured by the city's poor and working-class people to the personal choices they made.

In 2009, the city's Department of Health launched another public transportation ad campaign that depicted globs of human fat pouring out of soda bottles--as "a stark reminder of how these products can lead to obesity and related health problems."

Bloomberg's next "health care" campaign sought to ban the open display of cigarettes and cigarette advertising in convenient stores throughout the city, forcing shops to put them behind a curtain or under the counter. This would be a follow-up to Bloomberg's 2012 ban outlawing smoking in the city's parks, beaches and public plazas.

While Bloomberg's public health campaigns target and blame communities of color for drinking soda and having kids, he has repeatedly and unapologetically defended his police department as they invade those same communities and murder their young men.

Bloomberg, who became the seventh-richest person in the U.S. through his financial analysis and media corporation, says that "the high unemployment rate [is] a flawed measure of the city's health."

Instead of fighting for the needs and rights of struggling families in a stagnating economy, he is attacking the people who need the help most. And in the case of his new campaign against teen mothers, Bloomberg hasn't uttered a word about the crisis of the health care system, the city's sex education in public schools, or the role his administration has played in the dissolution of services for women during his time in office.

In the 1960s, New York City's school system created six schools for pregnant students, known as P-schools, in an attempt to keep pregnant or parenting women active in the school system. Over time, lack of services to these schools meant enrollment dwindled, and, in 2007, the Department of Education (DOE)--under Mayor Bloomberg's control--shut them down.

In 1982, the city started a new program called Living for the Young Family through Education, or LYFE, which became the centerpiece of the DOE's services for young parents. LYFE Centers are intended to provide "free, high-quality child care and academic, social/emotional and referral support services" for "all student parents."

Today, there are 37 LYFE Centers throughout the city--in 2008, they were only able to serve 638 infants and toddlers, a small fraction of the children that the affected student population have to take care of.

Even before the financial crisis hit, the city's Administration for Children's Services eliminated its payments to the DOE for the LYFE centers as part of its mid-year budget reduction in November 2007.

A New York City public school guidance counselor who worked in a school that had a LYFE Center says that after the program was cut, forcing a social worker to work only part-time, there was a noticeable change in teen parents' success in school. Students were still able to take advantage of the child care center every day, but a full-time advocate was no longer available for them--someone following up with students when they were absent, running teen parent groups, and being an advocate for the student to less understanding teachers and administrators.

In 2008, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) put out the study Protecting Two Generations: The Need to Preserve and Expand Services for New York City's Pregnant and Parenting Students in an effort to make the case to save and expand the LYFE Center program. The study states:

Students who have thrived in the LYFE program directly link it to their achievement in school and their success as parents...Simply stated, supported teens stand a better chance of succeeding in school and are less likely to become impoverished or have a second teen pregnancy.

The study revealed several areas where the current LYFE center programs are lacking, including the capacity to serve the population that need these services, limited and difficult-to-find information about them, no guidance to DOE staff on how to do outreach to students, and bureaucratic barriers which make it difficult for a student to transfer to a school with a LYFE program.

And while the city has invested in student tracking systems, like $81 million on the Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS) in 2008, in order to help justify the closure, phase-out or co-location of hundreds of schools, it does "not effectively track educational outcomes for pregnant and parenting students, complaints of discrimination or harassment based on pregnancy, or the number of students turned away from LYFE and why," according the the NYCLU.

While Bloomberg's campaign about teen pregnancies only states the grim realities that lie ahead for children of teen parents, the NYCLU study concludes that "early, effective and consistent educational support services" for the children of teen parents are key to breaking the cycle of poverty and lack of education that comes from being raised in these harsh conditions. This emphasizes the need not only for educational services for teen parents, but for their children as well.

IN A city where child care costs are the highest in the country, young mothers need this help more than anything. Estimates of a year's worth of infant child care in New York City are anywhere from $14,009 to $16,250, and are rising approximately $1,612 a year.

Given these numbers--especially when set alongside the average annual income for a woman without a high school diploma, which is $14,971--paid-for child care isn't an option for many, many women in New York. If a young mother is lucky, she is able to rely on the unpaid labor of a family member to take care of her kids.

For the 70 percent of young women who do drop out of school to work to support their new families, there is little to no support for them in the workplace. In the U.S., the only federal policy that protects a woman's right to return to her job after 12 weeks of maternity leave contains loopholes that make the law not apply for 46 percent of workers.

Among the conditions are a requirement that the employee must have worked for the employer for a year at approximately 25 hours per week--that means most young moms who have been in school won't qualify. And even if they do qualify, the law only requires that the employer provide unpaid leave, making it implausible for most of these women, who are already making below poverty level wages to begin with.

It's no wonder that New York City provides such a lack of support and uses the blame game against mothers-to-be when the view of teen pregnancy from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers it "a winnable battle" in public health. Of the 11 bullet points in the agency's teen pregnancy prevention programs, five of them look to abstinence as the solution.

Bloomberg, who is worth $27 billion, made a personal choice to allow school officials to close 26 public schools. He made another to simultaneously donate $350 million to his alma mater Johns Hopkins University--not the New York public schools. Meanwhile, he spends the city's tax dollars on campaigns to make citizens feel guilty about drinking too much soda, smoking cigarettes or starting a family while living in poverty.

Instead of doing something to help young women struggling to raise the next generation of New York City workers, taxpayers and citizens under harsh conditions, Bloomberg and his administration have chosen to shame, intimidate and scare them.

Politicians, bloggers, reproductive health advocates and feminists are responding to the campaign with outrage.

NPR interviewed teen mom Gloria Malone who started Teen Mom NYC. Gloria spoke about how seeing the ads reminded her of the insults, stereotypes and stigmas that sent her into depression and made her stay in an unhealthy relationship when she was pregnant in high school.

She went on to say that sex education and advocacy for teen moms instead of shaming is what will help young women overcome "marketers, advertisers, every single channel on television [that are not] waiting to show your kids how fun and glamorous sex is."

The New York Coalition for Reproductive Justice (NYC4RJ) has launched a campaign called "No Stigma! No Shame!" NYC4RJ has written a letter that it will send to the New York City HRA once it has enough people and organizations to sign on. The letter points the finger back at the city for targeting communities of color while "programs and services that could address and reverse these conditions within our communities" have been cut.

Activists are also holding Chancellor Dennis Walcott accountable for an announcement he made at the beginning of the second semester of the 2011-2012 school year, saying that schools would be required to include sexual health education as part of comprehensive health education. NYC4RJ's letter argues:

Teen parents need government officials to provide resources that encourage them to foster resilience instead of shaming them for creating their own families. The New York Coalition for Reproductive Justice calls on the HRA to dismantle this reprehensible campaign and address the real problem: lack of support for teen parents and their families.

Bloomberg, Doar and others behind the city's campaign against teen mothers have shown that they are incapable of actually addressing the real problems in the lives of ordinary people in the city. The "No Stigma! No Shame!" campaign suggests the ways in which a larger movement can pose an alternative--by defending women's rights and demanding access to the health care and services we all deserve.

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