Children Living in Poverty Birthing Children into Poverty: A Continuing Cycle

Teen pregnancy continues to be a global and domestic public health issue but what’s the missing link in prevention?  When looking at those living in poverty, does teen pregnancy contribute to the cause or consequence of poverty?  Rates within the United States are continuing to see a steady increase after years of a steady pace downwards in rates.  In the United States, the history of teen pregnancy rates showed an overall 23% increase from 1986 to a peak in 1991 and then decreasing 34% by 2005.  The birth rate for teens aged 15-19 years increased 5% from 2005 to 2007 with most of the increase taking place in 2006.  The U.S. still has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the fully developed world.  Studies even show some researchers have suggested high poverty rates in the United States account for the U.S. teen birth rates are the highest of any industrialized nation.  Statistics show one in three American women conceive by the time she is 20. 

Along with the steady increase in teen pregnancy rates, there has also been an increase in the number of children living in poverty.  Poverty has played a starring role in the reproductive and maternal health status of young girls giving birth at such young ages. Lack of quality services, comprehensive sex education, and low levels of educational attainment, allows for the cycle of young teen mothers living in poverty to be repeated.  Risks within the health of the child are greater within a teenage pregnancy.  According to the “Social Barriers Faced by Adolescent Parents and Their Children” article by Howard Spivak, MD and Michael Weitzman, MD,  “Children living in poverty are at increased risk of a wide range of health problems—being born prematurely or small for gestational age, failure to thrive, iron deficiency anemia, lead poisoning, abuse and neglect, develop mental delay, and injuries”. Teen pregnancy also increases the risk for infant mortality.

So what can we attribute to the rise of teen pregnancy rates?  Is it the stint we had of abstinence only sex education?  Can we say it has been due to the lack of supportive reproductive health services?  Sarah S. Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, stated in a Washington Post article, "People love to argue about how to prevent teen pregnancy, but sometimes we fail to shine enough light on the basic problem," Brown said. "Teen pregnancy is a major contributor to poverty, single parenthood, and limited futures for adolescents and their children”.  A Minnesota based study showed high rates of youth poverty precede high rates of teenage childbearing. Teens residing in communities with high rates of poverty, welfare use, and single-mother households are at higher risk for early pregnancy.  The combination of pregnancy and poverty assists in laying the ground work for an increase in school dropout rates among young girls, a lack of jobs with complete benefits and little to no health care coverage.  

To steer away from poverty driven teen pregnancies, what can we offer as a solution?  What can we now identify as the missing link in teen pregnancy prevention?  Keeping in mind the different circumstances most youth are dealing with, such as poverty, can help to lay the ground work for preventing the birth of more children into poverty stricken areas.   

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • sheresej

    Teens need resources and opportunties. Teens need exposure to a life outside of their poverty stricken community so they have a chance to see what else the world has to offer. I suppose it would be a bit of a stretch to say that schools in the U.S. need to be equal in all communities. Why should students in the inner city have limited books and outdated technology while another school in the same state 15 miles away has state of the art learning amenities? There are so many gaps in social class in this country that instigate problems and force families into poverty. If we just gave some of these teens the smallest opportunity to make a better life for themselves (i.e. safe neighborhoods & homes, community centers w/ dedicated mentors, a respectable place to learn), then perhaps we’d see different outcomes. We can’t expect teens to dream of success if their environment is a hub for failure.

  • ndreisbach

    Thank you for your post. Reading your post made me think about the little success of public health prevention programs to reduce teen pregnancy. There have been a few programs that have had some success in reducing teen pregnancy, but not many.

    It also made me think about how there is a (slight) resurgence of home visiting programs, especially to reduce poor birth and infant outcomes among new adolescent mothers. There is the famous Nurse-Family Partnership program from upstate New York, which was replicated in other cities as well. This program was able to reduce poor birth outcomes among new adolescent mothers living in poverty.

    Since our society is unwilling to seriously address issues related to poverty such as low educational attainment and unemployment/underemployment, home visitation programs may be an option to reach out to young adolescent mothers and their infants. Some of these home visitation programs are also trying to reduce rapid repeat pregnancies (another pregnancy within 2 years after the first pregnancy); however, these programs have been met with little success, unfortunately.

  • mphandpsych

    I think the issue of teen pregnancy is complex, and thus the solution should be multifaceted. Poverty and economics are an issue; education is an issue, specifically comprehensive sex education; access to medical care and community resources is an issue; environment and home/community life is an issue. Tackling only one aspect of teen pregnancy doesn’t solve the issue- it only shifts the burden.

  • mollyrose

    Thank you so much for this wonderful and very enlightening post. Much of what you said about poverty made me think about issues that I think about regularly in relation to coming up with sucessful, multifaceted, and long-term public health ineterventions. The gaps in social class and SES in this country are astounding and I can’t help but think that when we talk about poverty and its public health implications, we must include an open and honest conversation about racism. The link between poverty and racism is deeply rooted in American history and it often frustrates me that when we talk about solutions to poverty and solutions to public health problems that may stem from poverty, (such as teen preganacy)we often fail to communicate openly about the fact that racism is still very much alive and well in the United States. If we cannot talk directly about the underlying roots of poverty, how can we expect to come up with sustainable interventions and solutions? Leaving racism out of the discussion does an injustice to public health and to making real change. Of course it’s much easier said than done, but we must change the way that people think about one another and foster a sense of kindness and respect for those who are different from us in order to establish a sense of unity and move forward in the struggle to alleviate poverty.