The Catherine Ferguson Academy is on its summer schedule, and the custodians’ floor-polishing has pushed much of what is unique about the Detroit charter high school into the halls. A line of high chairs blocks a row of lockers. A table with built-in chairs for four infants stands near a pushcart designed to hold nine of them. And everywhere are posters of rainbow-colored condoms.
The school is for girls who are pregnant or already raising children. Students attend with their babies, and can return to school within days, not weeks, after giving birth. While enrolled, they follow a standard high-school curriculum, along with instruction on parenting skills and duties on the school’s large urban farm, which includes not only a garden but a henhouse, goat herd and even a horse.
"We help them plan for life," said Asenath Andrews, the school’s principal for 27 years. One of the lessons she works hard to instill – with the help of all those condom posters – is that it’s not OK to get pregnant again. She said about 10 percent of Ferguson students will get pregnant again in their teen years, contrasted to a national rate of about 60 percent.
For years, scholars and social scientists have wrestled with this question regarding teen pregnancy: Which came first, the baby or the welfare check?
Conventional wisdom had it in that order; a teenage girl has a baby young and out of wedlock, and it becomes the event that starts her slide into poverty. When Mitt Romney told the graduating class at Liberty University this spring that "for those who graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and marry before they have their first child, the probability that they will be poor is 2 percent. But, if those things are absent, 76 percent will be poor," he was giving voice to that conventional assessment.
But more studies show that it's existing poverty that leads to childbearing, not the other way around.
In Michigan, there were 10,944 live births to mothers younger than age 20 in 2010, the most recent stats available from the state. Of those, 2,198 came in the city of Detroit; the city had 10,970 live births, from women of all ages, in 2010.
In some ways, these Michigan figures are good news, as both numbers reflect a downward trend in teen pregnancy that’s been seen across the country. Nationally, the rate has dropped 40 percent since its peak in 1990, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health, which gets its data from various sources. Why this is happening is harder to pin down, said Jessica Sheets Pika, spokeswoman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy
"It's not just white teens, or wealthy teens, it's everyone -- all races, ethnicities, incomes," Pika said. No one really knows what the cause is, although Pika believes it’s a combination of preventive efforts, including education about abstinence and life skills in general, access to birth control, conversations between parents and children and other factors.
But the fact remains the United States’ teen-pregnancy rate is the highest in the world among developed nations – 37.9 per 1,000 in the 15-19 age group. That compares to 14.2 in Canada, 25 in the United Kingdom and 16.5 in Australia. Switzerland was the lowest, with 4.1.
In the United States, Michigan’s rate is 32.7, a middling ranking, with the range among states running from 16.4 (New Hampshire) to 64.2 (Mississippi.)
Those figures were compiled from various sources by Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine, whose paper on the subject in the Spring 2012 Journal of Economic Perspectives drew attention for its conclusion that the conventional wisdom that teen childbearing causes young women to slide into poverty has the cart before the horse.
They argue that a lack of economic prospects leads teens to pregnancy.
"Teen childbearing is a symptom of underlying circumstances," said Kearney, a professor at the University of Maryland. "Young, non-marital childbearing is certainly something that perpetuates poverty generation to generation," but poverty is often the goad to childbearing in the first place. "If you're poor and live in an unequal place, you're more likely to wind up pregnant," she explained.
It’s a view shared by many in the trenches of dealing with teen pregnancy.
Andrews, at Catherine Ferguson Academy, nods in agreement. Lots of girls from all levels of society get pregnant as teenagers, she said, but the poorest ones are most likely to bear children.
"The best prevention model is certainty of opportunity," she said. "The people who are best at contraception are women, 22-35, in career-path jobs." But, she added, longitudinal studies have shown that girls in the same family, one of whom gives birth as a teen and the other doesn’t, don’t have radically different outcomes, which discounts childbearing alone as a poverty driver.
Kearney said it makes more sense to think of teen childbearing as "a symptom of underlying circumstances," i.e. inequality. "...If girls perceive their chances at long-term economic success to be sufficiently low even if they do ‘play by the rules,’ then early childbearing is more likely to be chosen," Kearney and Levine speculate in their paper.
Which raises a question: As Michigan’s per-capita income declined from the top 20 nationally to the bottom third, adding in the remaking of the working class through the loss of manufacturing jobs, are we likely to see an increase in teen mothers in the future?
No one can really say. If girls can see a path to a better life, not necessarily, Kearney said. But for large numbers of teenagers living near the bottom of the income ladder, "They don't really see a cost to becoming a mom. They don't plan to go to college. The odds of finding a good man to marry are very bad."
Complicating this is the fact teen childbearing runs in families. From their perspective in the Upper Peninsula, Betsy Little and Lori Marta, who work with pregnant teens for the Marquette County Health Department, see the syndrome often. Little and Marta try to get the girls to join support groups with other teenagers who understand "the tough road they follow," Marta said.
Little has nine girls involved in the family-support program she runs, and "most, not all, are in homes where their own mother is the adult in charge." While many parents are supportive if not approving, there are always a few whose attitude is "you made your bed, lie in it," which not only can isolate the teen, but also discourages adoption, a path followed by so few that she’s only seen one in her years of doing this work, and that was of a year-old child, following an intervention by child protective services.
Most hope the pregnancy rate continues to fall, and point to various programs and social trends designed to keep it heading in that direction. Carrie Terry, adolescent and school health manager at MDCH, points to PREP, the Personal Responsibility Education Program, as a promising source of preventive information in areas where the problem is more acute, mostly larger urban areas.
Terry is one who believes that if one possible result of the state’s rising poverty rate is increased teen pregnancy, it isn’t happening yet.
"We’ve been in a recession for 10 years, and we’re not seeing it in the data," she said.
Terry repeats a mantra among those who work with at-risk teenagers:
"The best contraceptive for kids is hope."
At Catherine Ferguson Academy, 39 girls graduated this past June, a number Andrews wishes were higher. (Detroit Public Schools nearly closed the school before it was shifted to a charter, and Andrews believes the publicity led some prospective students to believe it was no longer open.) But she can always count on at least some students, because the girls they help are part of one of the oldest stories in humankind – the sadder but wiser girl who learned a lesson too late.
Andrews means to teach them this lesson is not the end of anything.
"We’re small enough to know everybody," she said. "We have high expectations for them. You cannot graduate unless you've applied and been accepted to a two- or four-year institution of higher learning. They may not all go. But just having the expectation you're going is enough to get them there."
Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit for seven years, and was a co-founder and editor of GrossePointeToday.com, an early experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Before that, she worked for 20 years in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she won numerous state and national awards for her work as a columnist for The News-Sentinel.