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Culture Clash Equals a Tide of Teenage Births

Latin American immigrants today have less time for assimilation than did earlier groups in less demanding times.

September 02, 1997|B. MEREDITH BURKE | B. Meredith Burke, a demographer, is a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution

'Stemming Mexican American teen births . . . will require educating parents to value rather than fear a life for their daughters that extends beyond the home, encouraging and rewarding girls to set goals that give a reason to forestall childbearing.'

In a recent national teen pregnancy study by Stanley Henshaw of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, California already ranked second among states in its teen abortion rate and eighth in its teen birth rate. It was first in its teen pregnancy rate.

Shouldn't our teenage girls know that society frowns on teen mothers? Married or not, teen mothers are a drain on an industrial society that requires sophisticated child rearing to prepare children for a technically oriented education and work force. Teen childbearing results in both mother and child disadvantaged compared with women who delay childbearing until the completion of their education.

Birth certificate data from the California Department of Health Services suggest that most California teens do avoid early childbearing. Births both to black and to white teen girls (more than 90% U.S.-born) declined 20% or more between 1990 and 1995. Births to girls of Asian descent always were minuscule.

But the overall number of teen births has remained fairly steady. In 1990, 26,000 girls under age 18 and 45,000 ages 18-19 gave birth; in 1995, 27,500 and 41,000 respectively. By 1995, Latinas constituted 64% of teenage mothers under 18 and 60% of those over, nearly twice their proportion among all teenage girls.

Of the 42,100 Latinas who gave birth in 1995, 48% were foreign-born. This decrease from 60% in 1990 reflects the increased number of U.S.-born Latina teen mothers.

These girls come from a culture that for a variety of reasons condones or even values teen childbearing. In the past two decades, many more Mexican American women have completed high school and even gone on to college, breaking with tradition. They are postponing childbearing. But these assimilated families have been swamped by the tide of newcomers who, history suggests, will take three or more generations to adopt American schooling and family formation patterns. Barely one out of four Latino births in the state now occurs to a U.S.-born mother.

The traditional rural Mexican culture is far removed from modern industrial culture. Not only is teen childbearing viewed as an early and welcomed entrance to adulthood, but motherhood is regarded as a complete role.

In the United States, black teen moms complete high school at half the rate as their childless classmates; whites at one-third the rate; Latinas at less than one-tenth that of their childless peers. In 1994, the journal Family Planning Perspectives published a national study showing that Latino teens of both sexes see motherhood as incompatible with any activities outside the home, including school and work.

Moreover, the same survey found that closely spaced childbearing was prized because it gave children playmates. Considering college an unrealistic aspiration, parents do not have to worry years in advance about how they will pay school expenses for two or more children born closely together.

Stemming the tide of Mexican-born pregnant teenagers into this country is a task for immigration and naturalization legislation. But stemming Mexican American teen births is a job for that community. It will require educating parents to value rather than fear a life for their daughters that extends beyond the home, encouraging and rewarding girls to set goals that give a reason to forestall childbearing, teaching boys that their sisters deserve more than to become teen mothers.

But the time frame is shorter now than in the past for bringing the descendants of immigrants up to the educational level and the tax flows needed to sustain our society, and the gap between newcomer and native-born much greater. In 1900, even U.S.-born white men had a median of only six years of schooling; today, the median for all adult Americans is approaching 13 years. With teenage childbearing come low levels of schooling, incomes and tax receipts. Unless the Latino community can speed the assimilation process, California will not long remain an industrial state.

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