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PERSONAL FINANCE / KATHY M. KRISTOF

Welfare or No, Teen Pregnancy Spells Poverty

August 28, 1994|KATHY M. KRISTOF

Sheila Monique Anderson last March became a statistic--one of a growing number of teen-age girls who have children before marriage and before high school graduation. Now on welfare and working to get a high school degree, the 17-year-old Los Angeles resident and girls like her are the focus of the Clinton Administration's proposed overhaul of the nation's welfare system.

A key part of the plan is a concerted effort to stop teen-agers from getting pregnant. Social workers say this effort is pivotal because, welfare or no welfare, eight out of 10 teen-agers who have kids end up poor for the rest of their lives.

"The negative consequences of having a child when you are 15 or 16 years old seem so clear that it is hard to imagine why anyone would do it," says William P. O'Hare, Kids Count coordinator at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit agency dedicated to the well-being of children.

"But the homes that many of these girls live in are so crummy that having a child and getting (welfare) is a way of getting out--an escape of sorts," O'Hare says. "Also, $500 or $600 a month seems like a lot of money to a kid. They just don't understand what it takes to maintain a family."

The high cost of starting a household, combined with the diminished income potential of someone without a high school degree, make having a child a financial hurdle for young unmarried mothers.

In the best case scenario--assuming that the mother and infant can find subsidized housing (or a roommate to split the rent) and can get child care at an unusually low cost--they will need $9,700 a year just for life's essentials.

How do these expenses compare to a single teen-age mother's income?

If she works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year at a minimum-wage job, she'll earn $8,840--or $860 less than she needs each year to cover expenses. On average, the income of a never-married mother is actually a bit higher--$9,820 a year--because some find better-paying jobs or are able to collect some child support from their babies' fathers, according to a study of 60,000 single-parent households.

With that annual income of $9,820, a mother will have $120 a year for entertainment or emergencies. That's just about enough for mother and child to go out to a movie once a month.

Here's how the money works out:

* Rent: The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment is $589 a month, or $7,068 a year, according to the National Multi-Family Housing Council in Washington. In major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, the average is considerably higher--$729 and $940, respectively. Subsidized housing is less--about $350 a month, or $4,200 a year, the group says. However, the stock of subsidized housing has been diminishing over the last decade, making it increasingly difficult to find.

* Food: Food expenses range between $830 and $1,420 per person per year. The older the person, the higher the average food expense, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For a mother and an infant, annual food expenses would run about $2,250.

* Transportation: Lower-income households--those earning less than $32,000 on average--spend between $690 and $820 per person on transportation each year. People who earn more generally spend more on transportation, presumably because they abandon public transit for their own cars.

* Clothing: A baby costs $450 a year to clothe; a 16-year-old costs roughly $1,010. These figures assume some hand-me-downs, so a mother with one child would spend a bit more, says Mark Lino, economist with the Family Economics Research Group, a division of the Agriculture Department.

* Health care: Many medical expenses for poor families are covered by Medicaid. The average single-parent family spends between $190 and $530 per child per year on medical expenses. The younger the child, the smaller the average expense. A teen-age mother and infant would spend roughly $720 each year, according to Family Economics Research Group.

* Child care: Some teen-agers are able to find friends and relatives to baby-sit, which means their child care expenses are relatively minimal--between $380 and $530 a year for a child from birth through age 8, Lino says. However, if relatives and friends aren't available, parents must grapple with the often stunning cost of hiring a baby-sitter or day care provider so the single parent can work. The average cost of day care is $3,100 a year, says Melissa Skofield, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

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