New Understanding of Adolescent Parenting

Andrea Lynch

Having a child as a teenager is undeniably difficult, and providing women with the tools to avoid or delay pregnancy until they feel ready is a worthy policy goal. But when adolescent pregnancy is not prevented, how far are we willing to go to help our young mothers?

In this two-part series, Andrea Lynch looks at the closure of the New York City Department of Education's "P schools" – educational programs for pregnant and parenting students – the programs that have arisen in the P school's absence, and the way teen pregnancy is understood by those who make policy to prevent and address it. Last week, she reported on P school closures and the challenges now facing organizations who work with young mothers. In the piece that follows, she addresses the federal policy that has devastating impacts on adolescents who parent and the new ways that grassroots groups such as Brooklyn Young Mothers' Collective and Sistas on the Rise conceive of teen parenting.

Supporting and advocating for pregnant and parenting women's right to education is a key component of the strategy employed by Sistas on the Rise, the South Bronx-based young mothers' and women of color activist group, but the organization embraces a broad vision of social justice and community-building. As Leslie Grant, a young activist, student, and mother in Sistas on the Rise's leadership circle who first connected with the group when she was a 15-year-old pregnant student at the Bronx-based Martha Nielson High School (a P school) five years ago, explains, "We would love to see societal changes, not just changes within systems, but a different perspective on how young women are viewed in society, and being honored for being mothers and taking that risk of creating life and bringing life into this world." The organization's approach to teen pregnancy and parenthood is grounded in a holistic vision of reproductive justice that challenges stereotypes about young mothers and seeks to build alliances between young women of color. In Grant's words, "Not only do we need the right to choose whether or not we decide to keep a pregnancy, we need to have a space, and society needs to acknowledge that women do choose to be parents and some pregnancies are wanted, regardless of age, race, color, or creed. So how can people take power and ownership in becoming parents?"

The Brooklyn Young Mothers' Collective (BYMC) also pursues a holistic approach to supporting and advocating for adolescent parents, not only within the education system, but also within the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Benita Miller founded the Collective in 2004, based on her experiences as a law guardian in family court. Miller was moved to action by her daily observations of the devastating impact of welfare reform and the raft of federal and state legislation it sparked on the young mothers she was representing.

In 1996, the Temporary Aid for Needy Families Act (TANF) transformed the U.S. welfare system, tightening time limits and work requirements for parents and families receiving public assistance. Not-so-subtly blaming poverty on single motherhood, TANF's four purposes include "preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies" and "encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families" as the quickest routes to economic advancement for women living in poverty. In policy terms, this translates into hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for abstinence-only programs for teens (which have since proven utterly ineffective at reducing unintended pregnancies or STI rates) and so-called Healthy Marriage Initiatives for grown-ups (often channeled through religious organizations with broader social agendas), both of which fail to acknowledge or support family structures other than heterosexual two-parent families. Related legislation like the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, despite being framed as an effort to increase children's safety and well-being, makes it easier for young mothers to be stripped of their parental rights, while failing to provide the services and support that could enable them to be better parents. Both pieces of legislation had a devastating impact on adolescent mothers, who, in New York City, are primarily low-income women of color. "The burden placed on young mothers, and particularly teen mothers, was so extreme," Miller recalls. "Many people say it was a big piece of legislation designed to curb and control the reproductive health of young women, because it was almost like, okay, if you're a supervised teen, you won't have another baby, this will teach you a lesson."

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In such a punitive landscape, few mechanisms exist to avert crisis, but when crisis strikes, we tend to focus on how the mother should have prevented it. "People who hurt kids are vilified," observes Miller. "I cringe every time I hear about a child fatality, because typically you'll notice that it's a young woman living with her boyfriend, and her boyfriend killed her kid. We need to be more visible so that that young woman gets to us before, or even if she already is in that situation, she figures out what is in her, what level of support she has in the community, to get out of it….poor, young mothers have to have extra-perfect judgment, they have to anticipate anything that might go wrong, otherwise they're punished."

To fill the gap left by legislation designed to shame first and ask questions later, Miller envisioned BYMC as a space that would not only help adolescent girls navigate the various systems that shape their lives, but also provide them with the skills they need to develop both as individuals and as parents, based on the belief that given the right support, teen mothers can be capable, positive, engaged actors in their lives and communities. Such spaces for teen mothers are few and far between, since most youth development programs focus on pregnancy prevention, and therefore discourage the participation of pregnant and parenting girls either by outright exclusion or by failing to provide childcare. So the Collective has created its own spaces, and within them, young mothers have thrived. Despite the Collective's success, however, Miller still has a hard time finding public champions for its work. "These are not girls that people want to organize around," she laments. "They might want to organize around their kids, but that's when the girls are so disconnected and victimized that all you can do is try and help their kids."

Parenting young may be a challenge, but with the right support, it can also be a source of tremendous growth for young women. Miller reflects, "The thing I'm most proud of with the girls that have gone through the program is that they really, really make choices for themselves now, even if it's choices that I don't always agree with: their critical intelligence has just exploded." Jelysa Roberts, an assistant teacher at BYMC, first connected with Miller while she was a P school student. Today, she balances her work at BYMC with parenting and attending college. Becoming a mother changed her life-including her relationship to her child's father, which ended shortly after she gave birth. "He's a good person, but I can't take care of him," she explains. "I can't take care of more than one person, besides my baby and myself. If he was able to sustain his lifestyle, that would be good, but he can't, and I can't help him do that right now. I can't depend on him. My life is much bigger now. I'm way ahead. I feel like we're not on the same level."

Having a child as a teenager is undeniably difficult–just ask any woman who has done it herself. And providing women with the tools to avoid or delay pregnancy until they truly feel ready is undoubtedly a worthy policy goal. But the question remains: in circumstances where adolescent pregnancy is not prevented, or when adolescents decide to become parents, how far are we willing to go to ensure that young mothers have the spaces not just to survive, but to flourish? How can we honor their right to keep learning–either in school, or through youth development programs–by removing the specific barriers they face as parents? And are we willing to accept that success might not always turn on heterosexual marriage? BYMC reaches out to partners for events like family photo day, but their main focus is creating a space where young women can build the skills and alliances they need to be able to depend on themselves. "We don't indulge in a fantasy life," stresses Miller. "We really ground ourselves in reality." If only federal policymakers would take the same approach.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.

Commentary Violence

The Orlando Massacre Response Must Not Obliterate the Realities of LGBTQ People of Color

Katherine Cross

Even in the wake of violent death, the reality of our community is erased. Omar Mateen's actual motives, the lives and very names of the dead, and the realities of gay, queer, and trans people of color who yet live are obliterated under a bigoted yearning for more brutality.

The thumbnail image of a news piece posted on my Facebook timeline was just a Puerto Rican flag. As soon as I saw it, I knew what the headline would be: “Over half of the dead in Orlando were Puerto Rican.” Upon seeing what I was looking at, my partner wordlessly swaddled me in one of her best hugs, the kind that could keep the whole world at bay, breaking upon her strong back like a tide. Though Latinxs are often stereotyped as uniquely patriarchal, we nurse large and thriving queer communities in the tenement houses, projects, and barrios of this nation, in the shadows of broader stereotypes about who LGBTQ people are and what we look like.

Until I came out, I never knew that my old aunt Iris had several trans woman friends who often came to her home to drink, laugh, and smoke. Her acceptance of me was mirrored by much of my wider family, the same people who might seem gauche to middle-class whites who imagine themselves so much more tolerant and might pity me for my ancestry. When I think about the fact that it was precisely Latinx LGBTQ people—those often hidden by the mainstream—who fell to Omar Mateen’s bullets, numbness takes hold. Its grip tightens when I see that even in the wake of violent death, the reality of our community is erased, save for a few comprehensive news reports sprinkled amidst the unending grind of rolling news’ speculations and non-updates.

What leaves me without breath is when that erasure is the first part of a larger gesture that asks us to lay this crime at the feet of the whole of Islam and anyone who might be thought to belong to it. In the wake of this demand, Mateen’s actual motives, the lives and very names of the dead, and the realities of gay, queer, and trans people of color who yet live are obliterated under a bigoted yearning for more brutality.

This tragedy joins many others that have taken place over the last decades. What these crimes all share is less a religious motive than a hateful, fearful one, which manifests in the profound violation of open, welcoming spaces that model a pluralistic society.

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How these acts of mass violence are framed says a lot. I needn’t cite any examples of Omar Mateen being called a terrorist; the word has become like the air we now breathe, inescapable in its consensus usage. From random tweets to the words of powerful leaders and writers, Orlando has become an act of “terrorism” by dint of the shooter’s name alone, in the midst of a discourse where the appellation “terror” is only applied to the political violence of self-professed Islamists.

But what is terrorism if not politically motivated violence? Why, then, is Thomas Mair, who was arrested for the murder of Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox just last week, already being painted as a “loner,” with the word “terrorism” conspicuous by its absence? The lips of the British elite seem unable to pronounce it, suddenly. Eyewitnesses suggest the handgun Mair allegedly wielded looked homemade—a craft he might have learned from a handbook he purchased from the neo-Nazi National Alliance, of which he was a longtime supporter.

In Mateen’s case, meanwhile, much has been made of his claim to support Daesh in his final phone call during the attack. Though details of the case continue to emerge, a more thorough look at his history suggests a more mundane explanation for this: Like so many of the shooters in these types of crimes, he seems to have sought to puff himself up and make himself appear more frightening, if only for the sake of his ego. Indeed, some investigators now suggest that he made his widely discussed Daesh pledges simply to ensure more media coverage, a strategy that some in the press have rewarded by posthumously crowning him a “jihadi.” His past flirtations with expressing meaningless support for Hezbollah and al-Qaeda would tell anyone well acquainted with foreign affairs just how confused this man was; those two organizations and Daesh are all enemies motivated by different types of extremism.

If we are to take the concern trolls at their word and have a “serious conversation” about Islam in the wake of this massacre, then we should critically examine how knowledgeable and pious Mateen actually appeared to be.

Mateen committed his killing during the holy month of Ramadan, a time when observant Muslims typically refrain from even uttering swear words, much less killing; there is no evidence he was fasting in observance of Ramadan, either; Pulse patrons say Mateen was a drunkard who became belligerent and had to be ejected more than once, but alcohol is forbidden to practicing Muslims.

Just as I felt my Latinx queer community rendered invisible in the wake of its own tragedy, so too do I empathize with the many queer and LGBT Muslims who feel the same way—their sexuality, their genders, their piety washed away by the caricature of Mateen that has emerged in recent days.

Mateen’s motivations seem to have been, based on available evidence, garden-variety self-loathing and prejudice inflected by violent, masculine, and homophobic demands placed upon him. A former colleague described Mateen as making so many racist and homophobic remarks that he complained to his superiors about the matter—who promptly did absolutely nothing.

Perhaps Mateen felt hatred and envy for those who appeared to live without the internal conflicts he had; perhaps his own noted racism against other people of color played into his choice of target. What seems clear, from his time in a police academy, to his love of NYPD shirts, to the fact that his job at the time of the shooting was working as an armed security guard for G4S, is that Mateen sought to affiliate himself with entities that often demonstrate strength and inspire fear, as a way of making up for his own inadequacies and quashing any self-loathing over his sexuality. His pledge to Daesh in his final moments appears to have been, then, less a statement of religious belief than his final way of pathetically latching himself onto another gaggle of armed strongmen in an attempt to make himself seem more frightening, more manly. His boast about having known the Boston Marathon bombers, which the FBI later found to be empty, can be understood in the same way.

All the same, the portrait of Mateen as a pathetic wannabe-badass-cum-possible-closet-case should not individuate his crime. He was born and raised in the same United States that brings the homophobia and transphobia of many violent men to a boil. None of the people who have literally threatened gun violence against trans women using washrooms this year were Muslim (many were ostentatiously Christian, as it happens). This is, after all, the year of North Carolina’s HB 2; that is part of the context in which this mass killing must be understood, in which this murder has now become a one-word threat issued by plenty of non-Muslim homophobes. Take, for example, this man in New York who, upon being kicked out of a gay club promised “I’m going to come back Orlando-style!” The cultural issue here is not Islam as a faith, but men who feel that any slight must be avenged by mass violence.

Yet beyond this, we must return to the streets of Britain, where makeshift memorials for Jo Cox are blossoming as I write this. She was killed as she was leaving her constituency surgery—a kind of public, face-to-face meeting with the people she represents that is both a requirement and tradition of MPs in the UK. All and sundry could come to her and discuss their views, grievances, and problems. Such events are free and open to the public, lightly guarded, and easily accessible by design.

They appear to be the polite, respectable mirror image of a gay club’s beats and grinds, but both sites speak to something about our aspirations as a liberal democratic society: pluralism and openness. Much has been written about gay bars and clubs as shelters from a hateful world; they are our little utopias amidst the chaos of our times, a brief flash of what we would like to see and feel everywhere: safe, accepted, in community, loved as ourselves. The constituency surgery, meanwhile, is an attempt at correcting the signature failing of representative democracy, providing a forum for people to speak directly to their elected officials and influence their government.

Each in its way is an innovation athwart darker times and darker impulses, a way of building community through trust and openness. This, too, was at the heart of Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, and the prayer meeting that welcomed in a young and listless white stranger a year ago this month; the people Dylann Roof killed had accepted him into their spiritual home for prayer and healing, had placed their trust in a stranger, and invited him to join them, unguarded and without fear.

All three places—the surgery, the church, and the gay nightclub—were paragons of openness and trust, open to all who observed only a most basic compact of decency and tolerance. All three were shattered by the overflowing hatred of men who needed to write their will in someone else’s blood.

It is actually true that our democratic societies face a mortal threat, but it does not come from Islam. It overwhelmingly comes from within: the unchecked entitlement and easily stoked rage of rudderless men who keep being told that women, people of color, and queers are taking something away from them that they need to violently reclaim. They believe they are entitled to a birthright that immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people and religious minorities, are pilfering from them.

We should open society further in response. For instance, we can do that by eliminating these divisive and prejudicial bathroom bills and allowing LGBTQ people to fully participate in society by protecting them from discrimination in all areas. Or, for that matter, increasing support for victims of domestic violence while identifying and rehabilitating abusers before they do worse might also go a long way toward preventing this from happening again.

The open and pluralistic society that many of us dream of is under threat from men with guns who feel that violence is the only way to solve their problems, making a public tragedy of their internal traumas. If we allow our focus to drift to Islam, we shall only hasten that demise: a dramatically upscaled version of the bigot’s extroverted suicide that must claim the lives of innocents even as we destroy our own.