A Collective Response to NYC’s “Think Being a Teen Parent Won’t Cost You?” Campaign

When the new NYC teen pregnancy prevention ad campaign came out, all of us at the CLRJ office took a collective sigh. We know that the targeting of this “shame game” is strategic, not new, and we also know that it probably won’t just happen in New York. Time and time again, pregnant and parenting youth are seen as society’s “failures,” “unfit caregivers” and “bad” influences on other youth. However, here at CLRJ, our work with our Justice for Young Families Initiative has proven the opposite. We’ve heard stories from pregnant and parenting youth that the birth of their child has motivated them to continue striving and focus on their future goals. But with this motivation, there needs to be a societal responsibility to support them by dropping punitive messages regarding youth sexuality; support policies that improve educational outcomes for all youth, pregnant, parenting or not; invest resources in programs that offer both comprehensive sex-ed and support for young parents; and invite young people to inform policy decisions that reflect their lived experiences and uphold their dignity. We must challenge ourselves and others around us to acknowledge that “teen pregnancy” is not this singular problem that must be “solved” but it involves a larger system that has truly failed in recognizing the complexities of people’s lives.

While the initial discovery of this new ad campaign drew out frustrations and anger that probably can’t be captured by words, we decided to carve out space to write down what this campaign stirred in all of us and why we as advocates need to continue pushing back.

Below are some responses from CLRJ staff and an alumna from our Latinas Empowered for Action (LEA) program. We are speaking back, fighting with genuine love, and ensuring that the voices of pregnant and parenting youth, their issues and their struggles are not belittled to a game of blame.

CLRJ Executive Director, Laura Jimenez, gives us her perspective:

I have three daughters and one son, so I am very concerned by the teen pregnancy prevention messages that were put out this week.  As an RJ advocate AND a mother, I have tried to be consistent with the messages I give to my kids at home, so that they do not differ from the messages that I share in my work in the reproductive justice world.

I am disturbed by the campaign and the messages that are being sent – particularly to my stepson and stepdaughter in New York, that reduce their sexuality and sexual choices to a price tag.  Young men are being told that their value lies in whether or not they are capable of financially supporting their children and young women’s self worth is tied to whether or not she can “keep a man” – whether or not the father of her child remains in a relationship with her.

I want my children to know that they are of value and loved unconditionally.  It is a shame that we are unable to support young women and men to own their sexuality and decisions around reproductive health and rights without attaching this support to the idea that they must be deserving of these privileges.  It is a shame that school systems and governmental institutions do not make it easy to access the support young parents need to continue on the path towards their dreams, converting educational and economic opportunities into another privilege, and not a right, as they are guaranteed by law.

CLRJ Director of Policy & Advocacy, Marisol Franco:

“Don’t get it twisted. “Teen pregnancy” is NOT the problem. It is outrageous to see public health dollars spent on inane social marketing campaigns that only shame, dismiss, and insult teen mothers and fathers. I can cite and debunk all the statistics NYC has manipulated, but that’s not the point. Reality is, pregnancy and parenting is hard at ANY age. Getting pregnant before you are 24 does not cause poverty. Most pregnant and parenting adolescents are already in poverty. These ads continue to blame youth, and degrade young dads who can still be good fathers, even if the relationship does not continue, let alone lead to marriage. Throwing marriage into the equation of parenthood 1) does not guarantee better outcomes, 2) pathologizes single-parented households and 3)completely excludes queer folks who are not even legally able to get married.”

Our Director of Research, Ena Suseth Valladares responds to one of the ads that read: “If you graduate from high school, get a job and get married before having children, you have a 98% chance of not being in poverty.”

“It is extremely short-sighted to contend that poverty could be avoided by simply delaying teen sex until marriage, graduating from high school or getting a job. By treating pregnancy solely as a personal choice, without taking into consideration the external factors that may be leading to this choice, we fail to appreciate how parenting for some youth is not so much a failure of “good-decision making” but a tacit recognition of the limited possibilities available to them. We need to focus on broader, systemic means, such as investing in low-income communities and creating viable economic and educational opportunities to combat the staggering numbers of continual economic disparities for Latin@s.

Some things to consider:

  • Percentage of high school graduates living in poverty
  • Educational opportunities
  • Living wage jobs
  • Marriage is heteronormative
  • Half of marriages in the US end in divorce
  • Images of babies of color- clearly targeting young parents of color
  • Vilifying young men and having certain expectations of them
  • Assumes that single motherhood is a terrible thing”

CLRJ’s Program & Administrative Associate, Cristina Valle, responds to this ad in the campaign: “I’m Twice As Likely Not To Graduate High School Because You Had Me As A Teen (Kids of Teen Moms Are Twice As Likely Not To Graduate Than Kids Whose Moms Were Over Age 22)”

“As the only “teen” mother at CLRJ, My first response at reading this false ad was, how sad that you are targeting young mothers and fathers who need your support the most. And I am not talking about financial support, so get off your high moral ground and think about that for a second. I mean support, the way the President and company always tell you to rally behind your troops. Not only was my son extremely intelligent and received honors and accolades from elementary school and onwards, but he also made it into a four year university. Even saying this, it angers me that I have to justify his existence and his achievements to you all. Yes, I had him at nineteen, in my first year of college myself, and no, I didn’t get to finish my degree. But I postponed that part of my life, for motherhood. And now I am 38, and all the things of youth and school that were a part of your life in your youth, are now a part of mine in adulthood. And I don’t feel less of a person with worth for having chosen a different path from life, than what you deem socially acceptable.”

Lastly, one of our LEA alumna responds with her thoughts on the campaign:

“My initial reaction is how dare you use such repulsive “preventive” tactics that actually do not work. It is an insult to teen parents who already struggled with social stigma. Being a teen parent is a life changing experience with many responsibilities, but also a rewarding one. Who is to say that at age 30 a father does not have to pay child support? Or find a good job? Instead of targeting “teen parents” focus on providing teens with the tools and resources they need in order to make not only informed decisions, but also allow them to have a positive experience in this already apathetic world.

So, do not believe the hype! I was 18 years old when a college counselor told me, neither my son nor I would ever attend college, let alone graduate. A college degree later, I succeeded and my son will too!”

Our words are among many responses that see how troubling and problematic an approach like the NYC Human Resources Administration’s campaign is for pregnant and parenting youth. We will continue to speak out and stand up for and with teen parents, will you?

*A big thank you to the young parent bloggers over at thepushback.org—your insightful words and perspectives uplift and challenge people to go beyond their preconceived notions of what young parenthood looks like.”*