Barriers to Self-Sufficiency and Avenues to Success Among Teenage Mothers. Barriers to Self-Sufficiency and Personal Strengths


The teenagers' entering the programs differed widely with regard to personal characteristics that appear related to their level of program participation and are likely to be related to their eventual self-sufficiency -- factors such as motivation, cognitive skills, self-esteem, and social support.  In-school youth tended to have the strongest personal resources, and dropouts tended to have the weakest, but there was variation in all groups with respect to their initial personal resources (see Exhibit 1).

Despite considerable diversity in the barriers to self-sufficiency facing these young mothers, virtually all of them faced at least some.  All lived in poverty, often in dangerous neighborhoods where the norms do not promote self-sufficiency and with families whose adult members were themselves struggling to cope with personal crises.  In addition, the teenagers in the demonstration programs were young, often lacking concrete goals and direction, and in some cases extremely immature.



Yolanda was a 16-year-old Hispanic teenager who had dropped out of school in the ninth grade and who had no work experience.  She enrolled in the program in late 1987 while she was still pregnant.  She lived with her mother, who was very supportive, and a younger sister.  Although Yolanda was shy, she appeared very motivated to get off welfare and was always very cooperative with program staff.  In early 1988 she enrolled in a GED preparation program and then later the same year enrolled in a program to learn word processing.  She has taken the GED test twice without passing it but has not become discouraged (perhaps in part because her performance on the test improved).  Yolanda has continued to study for the GED test and, in the meantime, also took a part-time clerical job in a hospital, earning $4.50 per hour.  She did so well on the job that she was offered a full-time position in December 1990.  But, she decided to wait until she obtained her GED certificate.  She was scheduled for a retest in spring 1991.  Her case manager feels that Yolanda might have eventually succeeded in finishing school and obtaining employment without the program but would probably have taken many more years to accomplish these goals on her own.   Yvette was an 18-year-old dropout who had been out of school for about 18 months when she entered the program in October 1987.  At that time, she was pregnant with a second child; her first child was three.  Yvette came from a family with a history of problems.  She herself had spent several years in foster care and had been reported to the state child welfare agency for alleged neglect of her own child.  Yvette had reading test scores at about the ninth-grade level, higher than the average for the sample, but had little motivation to comply with the program or to participate in any activities.  After program entry, her case was temporarily deferred because of her pregnancy.  Once the deferral was removed, Yvette failed to comply with the program requirements, even though program staff made several home visits and offered to pick her up so that she could attend program workshops.  She was sanctioned in early 1988 and has remained sanctioned ever since.  Program staff feel that the sanction has no great relevance to Yvette;  they suspect that she may be earning money on the side through prostitution.


EXHIBIT 1 - Continued


Miranda was 14 years old and in the sixth grade.  She was living with her 30-year-old mother, her stepfather, and a 13-year-old brother.  Her basic skills scores were extremely low (third-grade level).  Miranda was very uncooperative with the program initially and made it clear that she did not want to participate.  She received five warnings for failure to comply with program requirements in the next year and then was finally sanctioned in fall 1989 when she dropped out of school.  The sanction remained until Miranda returned to the program in fall 1990 and asked to have her sanction lifted.  In the meantime, she had a second baby and experienced a number of serious family problems.  When she came back to the program, Miranda was put into the life skills workshop, where she became very attached to and inspired by the instructor.  Staff agree that Miranda subsequently matured considerably: her attitude, appearance, and motivation all improved.  She completed all of the program workshops and was participating regularly in the program's on-site adult basic education program.   Daniella was a 17-year-old junior in high school.  She had lived with her grandmother since age three, when her mother died.  She dropped out of school shortly after intake and had a history of irregular compliance with program requirements.  She was sanctioned for the first time two months after intake for failure to attend the assessment interview and program workshops and has subsequently been sanctioned on several occasions.  In fall 1990, Daniella enrolled in the program's on-site GED program, where she continued to be enrolled at the time of the case conference session.  She was sanctioned in January 1991 for nonattendance, but after the sanction was imposed her attendance improved.

Daniella's long-range prospects are not promising.  At intake, Daniella performed poorly on the Test of Adult Basic Skills (reading at the fifth-grade level), and she is in the low end of the GED class.  She had a second child in March 1990 and is believed to now be living with her boyfriend, who allegedly abuses her.  Program staff describe Daniella as a very needy and demanding person who might have an alcohol and drug problem.  She is described by the staff as "feisty," "aggressive," "volatile," and "manipulative."  In school, she is the "class clown."  Although program staff are not sure about her ability to finish her GED or become employed, they believe she would simply be sitting around "watching soaps" without the program.


EXHIBIT 1 - Continued


Zelda was 19 years old and attending college when she entered the program in December 1988.  She had already completed a two-year medical assistant program and had an A.A. degree but was continuing her education in a four-year program at the University of Illinois.  Her goal is to become a doctor, and program staff believe she has both the ability (she had perfect scores on all her basic skills tests) and the determination to achieve this goal; she also has excellent family support.  Zelda complied with all program requirements, such as workshop attendance.  The program provided her with both transportation and child care assistance, which further facilitated her school attendance.  In mid-1989 Zelda told her case manager that she wanted to earn some money.  The case manager suggested that she take a civil service test, which she passed, and she secured a full-time job in the post office earning $11.26 per hour with full benefits.  Her case was closed in July 1989 as a result of her employment.  At last contact, Zelda was both working full-time and going to college.   Emma entered the program in November 1987, when she was 18 years old.  She had graduated the previous June as a special education student in sewing, which she had hated.  According to test scores, she was reading at the third-grade level.  At intake, she was still involved with the father of her baby (who was reputedly a drug dealer and had children with other women).  After entering the program, Emma enrolled in a cosmetology school, attended regularly, and graduated in June 1989.  However, she gave birth to her second child shortly afterwards, in August 1989.  After taking the exam for her cosmetology license in April 1990, Emma learned that she had not passed and was unwilling to try again; staff believe that she probably failed the reading portion of the test and might never be able to pass it.  At the time of the case conference, she was "not doing much of anything," although she continued to participate in some job search activities without much enthusiasm.  Program staff believe that she is no longer motivated, in part because of discouragement and in part because her boyfriend is a "bad influence" whose financial assistance, at least in the short run, makes the threat of a sanction less relevant to Emma than it might be to others.


The majority of the teenagers expressed an interest in employment (and a corresponding hatred of welfare), but many had extremely weak reading and language skills that are incompatible with the types of jobs to which they aspired.  Moreover, despite a generally positive orientation toward education in the abstract, many had had negative experiences in traditional school settings.

I'm happy I got a job because I was on welfare and I was tired of staying home waiting for the first of the month check, and there wasn't enough for me and my child.  Then when I got a job I was happy because it keeps me out of being bored and being responsible for my kid.  I'm making money and supporting my kid.  It shows me to be more responsible.


Perceptions of Child Care as a Major Barrier

A major barrier to participation in the demonstration programs was the teenagers' child care needs.  Although the program helped participants find and pay for child care, resistance to care by nonrelatives was high, primarily because the young mothers felt they could never trust a stranger to care for their children.  In the end, most were able to rely on relatives to care for their babies, and they were generally satisfied with these arrangements.

I have to know the person real good to let them take care of the baby, because these days you can't trust a lot of people taking care of babies.  I would be scared because these days babysitters abuse little kids and you don't know it until you find out for yourself.

Kids get kidnapped.  Or you come to pick your kid up and he's dead or he's hurt real bad.  I don't trust people that openly.  There are some things you can trust people with, but you can't really trust people that quickly when it comes to your child.

On the news they say that there are kids that are molested by the people in day care.  I'm not saying it won't happen with relatives 'cause I know it happens with relatives, too.  I don't trust nobody with my kids.

I won't until I know she can talk.  If she can talk to me and tell me, if she goes to school and somebody touches her or hits her and she can tell me, "Mommy, this such-and-such pulled my hair.  Mommy, this such-and-such touched me there."  If she can tell me, okay, but otherwise I wouldn't let her go.


Repeat Pregnancies Undermined Progress Toward Self-Sufficiency

There was considerable agreement among these young mothers that future childbearing should either be postponed for a considerable period of time or avoided altogether.  The young mothers who wanted to postpone their next pregnancies generally said that they wanted to wait until they were more financially secure.

I might have a child years from now.  My daughter will probably be in high school by then.  I want to get my life together.  I want to be married, have a good husband, a good home, and know I could afford another one.

I don't think I could handle it.  Maybe when I'm 30 or 25, but right now it would be too much to handle.  I'd probably commit suicide.

Many young mothers, however, acknowledged having problems with birth control and, by the time of the in-depth interviews (roughly 18 to 24 months after sample enrollment), about one-third in the sample had had a repeat pregnancy.  These repeat pregnancies, like the first ones, were almost never intentional.  The young mothers, who often had a fatalistic outlook, indicated that their pregnancies had "just happened."

They (the boyfriends) are not the ones staying home with them.  They like having them, but they're not going to take care of them.  They'll tell me, "Oh, I want to have another baby."  Mine's said that to me many a time.  But I wouldn't listen.  I'm not stupid.

I didn't plan it, and then again I kind of knew that it was going to happen because I wasn't like really taking the pills like I was supposed to.  I couldn't remember every day to take a pill.  And I still don't.

I really don't want to take time off for no more children right now.  I'm not ready for it now.  But I'm allergic to birth control pills.  So I'm not having sex as often as I used to.  I want my boyfriend to use a condom.

Resources Facilitating Program Participation

Many of the young mothers appeared to be very resilient.  In spite of the difficult circumstances in which they were living, many were highly motivated both to better themselves and to provide their children with a better childhood than they had been given.  Furthermore, many had family support that enabled them to move forward with their lives despite their parenting responsibilities.

I have to get out of here.  I can't stand it.  No matter where you turn, all you see is this guy and that guy trying to sell drugs.  I don't want my son to grow up with them.  Sometimes little boys let other people influence them, and I don't want him to be growing up thinking that that's something that he has to do to make money.

Almost none of the young mothers envisioned that they would become permanently dependent on welfare.  There was a strong and almost universal hatred of welfare.  According to most of these teenagers, women on welfare become addicted to receiving public assistance and, over time, their motivation and ability to become self-sufficient erodes.

It's like a drug or something.  They get lazy, and they depend on it.  They don't have to work or do nothing 'cause they just wait in their house for the check to come.  They let years go past, and they have no experience.

I started to feel lazy.  You start depending on it.  You sit there every month, first of the month, waiting for your check.  And I'm not going to be home sitting like that.  I've got to keep doing something.

Parenthood: Highly Rewarding, the Most Important "Job"

Most of the young mothers emphasized the positive aspects of having a child.  Their children provided a source of love and affection, enhanced their self-esteem, and made them feel more mature and responsible.  Given the limited rewards that many of these teenagers derive from other aspects of their lives, the benefits of motherhood seem quite powerful.

I like being a mom.  I love my son, nothing could change that.  He's, how can I say it? I don't know, he's everything to me anyway.  I don't care about nothing else but him, how he is.

For some of these mothers, regular employment and participation in activities geared toward self-sufficiency were perceived as interfering with their parenting responsibilities.  Most teenagers, however, felt it was not only acceptable but desirable to work before their children started school, primarily because of their desire to provide for their children's material needs.

I think they should be about one year old, so they'll know who their mother is.

I think mothers should work.  For one thing, your child gets to learn how to be with other children.  And they learn to do little things that maybe you don't have time to teach them at home.  So I think she should work, even just to help the child out a little.

Low Compliance with Child Support Enforcement Agency

Only a handful of mothers in the samples cooperated with the state child support enforcement agency.  About half in the in-depth interview sample indicated that they continued to receive some type of assistance from the fathers of their babies, typically in the form of material goods (groceries, diapers, baby clothes) or small amounts of cash.  Yet, those who received even modest informal support from the fathers generally felt it was in their best interest to resist cooperation.  Many who received no child support stated their preference for having nothing further to do with their babies' fathers.

He gives me $30 a week.  That's a lot better than welfare would give me.

Well, the thing I don't like about it is they sent me a letter, take him to court.  But see, I didn't want to take him to court because he was doing for the child.  Then that makes the fathers think that you're making them, like you got something against them.  Because that's the way my baby's father took it.  And then I was saying, "Why do he have to pay, since he's already doing for her?"  I could see if he wasn't doing nothing for her and you wanted him to pay.  See, I don't understand."

That almost broke me and my baby's father up.  We almost broke up because of that.  I mean, because when I told him, he was like, "But why do you want to take me to court for child support?"  I'm like, "I'm not, it's Public Aid."  And you know, we were gonna end up breaking up because of Public Aid.