Barriers to Self-Sufficiency and Avenues to Success Among Teenage Mothers. Public Policy


This study, in combination with our implementation and process evaluations, underscores the feasibility and desirability of changing public policy to promote self-sufficiency among welfare dependent teenage parents and, thus, to break the "cycle of poverty":

  1. Intervene early.  Teenage mothers with young children should be expected to participate in programs designed to enhance their self-sufficiency relatively soon after their babies are born.
  2. Make pregnancy prevention a priority.  Policies to prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies among teenagers at high risk of welfare dependency should be a high priority.
  3. Tailor services to the needs of young mothers.
  4. Pay special attention to dropouts.
  5. Consider truly mandatory programs.
  6. Provide active case monitoring and management.  Sanctions alone are unlikely to prove effective in engaging the teenagers' active participation or changing their behavior.
  7. Child care services are essential in mandatory programs for young mothers with infants, but the take-up rates are unlikely to be high.
  8. Consider ways to prolong health coverage.  Health care benefits are an especially critical feature of the welfare program for this population -- far more important than cash assistance.
  9. Provide incentives to cooperate with child support enforcement.


  1. Intervene Early.  Teenage mothers are known to be at especially high risk of long-term welfare dependency. Delays in providing them with needed services or in helping them to formulate long-range goals may foster or hasten their "addiction" to welfare dependency.  The personal resources available to many of these young mothers are often fragile and may erode over time:  Their motivation and self-confidence may decline; the lack of routine, structured activities may become more firmly established; and the willingness of family members to assist with child care may diminish.  Moreover, if welfare agencies postpone some type of intervention until the babies are older (for example, until they are 3 years old), these young mothers are very likely to bear additional children, thereby lengthening the period during which the "addiction" may take hold.  Targeting these young women with services soon after their first births seems feasible and, in some respects, desirable.  The young mothers are likely to lose a lot of ground during such periods if deferrals are granted early in the pregnancy.


  2. Make Pregnancy Prevention a Priority.  Some teenagers plan their pregnancies, but the overwhelming majority do not.  Despite the emergence of the view that pregnancy among disadvantaged teenagers is an adaptive response to poverty,(1) little research suggests that early childbearing is the desired outcome of a rational choice among poor young women(2).  However, teenage parenthood is unlikely to be viewed as a disastrous situation to those whose future prospects seem relatively bleak anyway.  Considerably more research is needed to help us understand "what works" in delaying sexual activity and preventing unprotected intercourse among teenagers(3).


  3. Tailor Programs to the Teenagers' Needs.  While welfare mothers of all ages face similar barriers to self-sufficiency, young mothers have special needs that may not get addressed if they are integrated into an adult program.  Teenagers are most likely to respond favorably to an intervention that is developmentally appropriate and recognizes their youth.  Teenage mothers require considerable structure and discipline, as well as more individualized attention than older women.  Furthermore, a program aimed at younger welfare mothers has a greater opportunity of creating a group norm that encourages self-sufficiency, since the young mothers are less likely than older women to have given up hope for a better life for themselves and their children.  Thus, there are benefits to operating specialized programs for teenage parents, or, where separate programs are not feasible, assigning separate case workers who enjoy working with teenagers to young mothers and allowing these case workers to maintain somewhat lower caseloads.


  4. Pay Special Attention to Dropouts.  Those young mothers who were high school dropouts when they entered the program were extremely needy and most at risk of becoming entrenched as long-term welfare recipients.  These teenagers appeared to be less likely to make progress toward self-sufficiency on their own.  Despite the numerous barriers and problems that the dropouts brought to the program, the staff often were successful in engaging them in some type of self-sufficiency-oriented activity.


  5. Consider Truly Mandatory Programs.  Mandatory programs for teenage mothers on welfare can be implemented without being punitive.  The vast majority of mothers (including the high school dropouts)reported that they liked the enhanced services program.  Negative comments about the program were rare, even though many had their grants reduced for at least brief periods or were threatened with such reduction.  Several of the teenagers acknowledged that the program gave them a needed "push", noting that, without such a push, they would not have done anything to become self-sufficient.  Program staff also came to view the monetary incentive as a critical tool that enabled them to provide services to teenagers who might otherwise not have come forward for them.


  6. Provide Strong Case Monitoring and Management.  Sanctions alone are unlikely to prove effective in engaging the teenagers active participation or changing their behavior.  Although many of the young mothers responded positively to the sanctions, this In-Depth Study suggests that continuous active participation requires considerable monitoring and assistance from program staff.  The young women in the in-depth samples especially appreciated the program staff's care, nurturance, and willingness to work with them as individuals.  Because of their complex lives and multiple barriers, the teenagers' progress toward self-sufficiency was often uneven;  many of them started and stopped several activities and required ongoing guidance and support through the transitions.


  7. Provide Child Care Assistance.  Many of the young mothers in the enhanced services program took advantage of the child care paid for through program funds, but many others did not.  By preference, the majority of the teenagers in the in-depth samples who were active participants in a program component relied on unpaid relative care.  While the special child care study conducted for the evaluation showed that the enhanced services program increased the use of formal child care arrangements, the teenagers in the in-depth samples expressed considerable concern about placing their child with a provider whom they did not know and trust.  When reliable and convenient child care is available informally, these young mothers may well feel more at ease about engaging in a mandated activity, and compliance may therefore be heightened.  However, family conflicts and other demands on family members (including demands that they participate in JOBS, if they are welfare recipients) may mean that relative care is unavailable or undependable for many of these young mothers.


  8. Consider Ways to Prolong Health Coverage.  Policies to promote self-sufficiency among teenage mothers need to consider these young mother's needs for regular health care for themselves and their children and recognize that they cannot afford to pay for such care themselves.  One option, consistent with the Family Support Act of 1988, is to extend medical benefits beyond the period when the women receive cash assistance [This is current policy].


  9. Provide Incentives for Young Mothers to Cooperate with Child Support Efforts.  The majority of young mothers on welfare resist the efforts of the child support enforcement agency to establish paternity and collect child support payments, especially if the father is already contributing financially to the child's support.  To these young mothers, the child support agency represents just one more hassle with which they must contend as welfare recipients.  Moreover, the young mothers who get assistance from the fathers generally view cooperation with the agency as harmful to their self-interests.  However, the father's provision of financial assistance typically declines over time, and it is primarily the mothers who are getting no assistance who are most willing to comply.  Therefore, periodic reviews of these cases by the child support agency may be warranted.