It's Just Not Cool to Have a Baby Anymore
When Phoebe Smith began working as a Family Life Educator at the West Oakland Health Center (WOHC) in 1993, she faced a teenage pregnancy epidemic that was out of control. "I had 12-year-old girls come in asking how to get pregnant because they wanted a baby," she recalls. "I'd tell them, 'I'm here to teach you how not to get pregnant.' It was spreading like wildfire."Four years later, that wildfire is a controlled burn. Quietly, almost mysteriously, the teen birth rate has gone down significantly in Oakland. The drop is sharpest among black teens, almost 30 percent. Although rates among Latino and Asian teens appear to be rising slightly, counselors report, rates for white teens are also declining. "Best I can say is, it's just not cool to have a baby anymore," Smith says. "The young women see the reality. Their friends with babies can't do the things they used to do. The fathers just walk away. And they're saying, 'That's not gonna happen to me'." Nationwide, black teen birth rates are down 23 percent since 1991, and cities all over the country are reporting significant declines, though few as dramatic as Oakland's.The downward trend in black teen birthrates is matched by a decline in black infant mortality, juvenile violence and the school dropout rate, in Oakland and nationally. Experts aren't sure what accounts for the turnaround. But service providers and anti-poverty advocates are beginning to believe that an emphasis on connecting low-income young people with concerned adults -- from mentors and tutors to Family Life Educators like Phoebe Smith -- is counteracting the social isolation that helped produce skyrocketing rates of infant death, teen pregnancy and juvenile murder in the late 1980s.This new emphasis on relationships is apparent at WOHC, which began a campaign against teen pregnancy and infant mortality in the early 1990s. Smith's discovery that many teens were choosing to have babies let providers zero in on the loneliness at the heart of the teen pregnancy epidemic. "When we first started working in the schools, the isolation was palpable," says Steve Gardner, WOHC's director of staff development. "We'd left a generation of kids to raise themselves." Isolation was also a key factor in high black infant death rates. "These women are stressed: They often don't have a close relationship with a partner, their own mother may not be around, and they lack support to do what they need to do -- eat right, quit smoking, avoid drugs and alcohol, keep their prenatal visits," says Ola Bennett, who runs WOHC's efforts to reduce infant mortality.Those insights led to a comprehensive, three-pronged approach: -- put more health educators in the schools, to relate to kids directly. -- develop social networks for pregnant women, especially teens, and get more savvy about outreach to girls who aren't pregnant but came in to the clinic with friends or relatives who are. -- put the focus on "relationships," says Ruth Bauer, director of prenatal education. Her office looks like the storeroom in a day care center, crowded with a baby swing, a kid-size table and chairs, and every kind of toy. Strollers are usually double-parked outside. Half of her clients are teenagers. "It amazes me how little it takes to make a difference in their lives."The difference shows. Teens in WOHC's program have reported no repeat births in four years, while older clients have had two and three children. "We reached the girls early enough to show them there's an alternative to having baby after baby," says Ola Bennett. Young men have been particularly influenced by the anti-AIDS crusade, providers say. "You see them coming in for condoms, not as much because they're afraid of pregnancy -- but we're working on that -- but because of AIDS," says Gardner.Jacqueline Derroch of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a think tank on reproductive health, says, "In the last few years, we've seen two things: a slight decrease in the number of teens having sex, and a significant increase in condom use. I think that's mostly attributable to getting the message out about AIDS, but it's paying off on teen pregnancy." Lawanda Oliver certainly got the message. The teenage daughter of a teenage mother, 14-year-old Lawanda grew up mostly on welfare, but she cares more about basketball than boys right now, and says other girls are beginning to think that way. "You still have girls having babies, because they want someone to love. But not as many. It's all the diseases. It's how hard it is, taking care of a baby. And more girls are planning for their future."Observers say the drop in teen pregnancy and infant mortality may also be a sign that the crack epidemic is losing its grip. By decimating a generation of mothers, it left a void of supervision and affection that young people filled with sex -- as if the disappearance of mothering made girls ache to be mothers themselves. "Plus, you had young girls having babies for young men who expected to die, to leave them a legacy," says Gayle Quinn Williams, WOHC director of health education. "It was like a war."Some of the credit must go to young people themselves. "Things got so bad they got better," explains Charles Jones, a 20-year-old Oakland resident. "A lot of young people turned away from what they were becoming."