Silvia Henriquez has an interesting article on today’s Huffington Post entitled “Policies to Curb Latina Teen Pregnancies Have the Reverse Effect.” In the piece, Henriquez argues that the policy efforts designed to curb Latina teen pregnancies are too narrow and shortsighted—they focus on birth control and marriage rather than on big picture issues like immigration, poverty, and inequality. What’s most important about Henriquez’s article is that she skillfully highlights the ways intersecting factors of race, gender, and class overlap to shape these high rates of teen pregnancy. Henriquez begins by offering some important context in which to situate the debate. She writes:
“Latina teens give birth at a rate more than twice that of white teens. Latinos have a much lower high school and college graduate rate compared to white teens.”
This background information gives insight into the environment facing pregnant Latina teens. Other sociological research has shown that when women give birth at young ages they are less likely to finish school, less likely to land well paying, stable jobs, and thus more likely to be poor. When the fathers are in comparable situations (like the lower high school and college graduation rates Henriquez describes), this only compounds young women’s likelihood of raising children in poverty. And given that institutional and employer-based racial discrimination still runs rampant, Latino/as are likely to face higher jobless and underemployment rates than whites, further exacerbating the chances of remaining poor. (Deirdre Royster’s book “Race and the Invisible Hand” is one such example of insidious racial discrimination in low skilled labor markets, though there are many others.) Henriquez continues on to say that:
“Myths — rather than realities — have too often guided the public discourse about Latinas and pregnancy. Latina teens don’t have sex more often than their white counterparts and most desire a college education. In addition, despite the demonization of immigrants in recent health care debates, most Latina teen moms are not immigrants.”
These are critical points that highlight the ways Latinas are cast in what Joe Feagin insightfully describes as the white racial frame. This frame (discussed elsewhere on this blog) encompasses stereotypes, sincere fictions, and ideologies about different racial groups. However, these stereotypes, images, and beliefs are shaped by gender as well as race. Thus, women of color often are cast as hypersexual, while men of color are likely to be depicted as criminals. As such, when Henriquez writes that Latina teens do not have sex more often than white teen girls, nor are they mostly immigrants, she counters white racial framing of Latinas as hypersexual, irresponsible, and a drain on national resources. (Similar imagery and framing was present in Ronald Reagan’s depictions of “welfare queens” in the 1980s.) Henriquez then identifies some of the factors that influence Latina teens’ high birth rates:
“Compared to white teens, Latina teens have higher pregnancy rates because they use birth control much less often and reject abortion much more often. Religion and family influence are very important factors, but for sexually active Latina teens these are not the only or even most relevant obstacles to birth control usage. For many Latinas, the top barriers to birth control usage are much more mundane: transportation, lack of health insurance or cash for health services, confusing and intimidating immigration regulation for households with a combination of citizens and non-citizens, and lack of guidance about available services. When teen pregnancy prevention programs and messages ignore these obstacles, Latinas become distanced from sex education efforts.”
Here is an incredibly important point that highlights Henriquez’s central thesis that bigger issues than simple individual choice are at play for Latina teen moms. The issues she cites—transportation, lack of health insurance—are directly linked to social class. If you’re a teenager in the suburbs with your own car, it’s relatively easy to head off to your local Planned Parenthood for condoms. If you have health insurance, you can visit your doctor, tell him or her you’re planning on becoming sexually active, and get safe, confidential counseling and birth control. Switch out the car, the suburbs, and the health insurance for an impoverished neighborhood, no access to a doctor, and no money to find one, and the picture gets much bleaker.
Note also that these aren’t just class issues. For Latinas, intersections of race and gender are also factors. Henriquez astutely points out that immigration regulation can add layers of bureaucratic confusion that can make it difficult for these teen girls to access social services. This is a point that highlights that race makes a difference, and that not all racial groups are interchangeable—these issues of immigration regulation are less likely to impact poor black teens, for instance. But they are more likely to impact teen Latinas who, by virtue of their sex, face greater potential consequences of sexual activity than do Latinos. Gender, race, and class all come together to shape this issue. Henriquez continues:
“Sex education programs often tell teens that delaying parenthood until they finish high school and college will bring them some version of the American dream: a good job, economic security, family stability. The troubling reality is that for Latinas this promise comes true for only a limited few. Recent research confirms that Latina teen mothers have roughly the same socioeconomic circumstances at age 30 as those Latina teens who delay childbirth. The unfortunate reality is that access to college and the opportunities that emerge as a result is starkly different for Latina teens and white teens.”
This reiterates Henriquez’s point that broader issues than personal choice are at play here. If Latina teen mothers are in the same socioeconomic place by age 30 as those who’ve chosen to delay childbearing, then this points to major issues in our educational and economic spheres. Most studies show that more education translates into increased economic rewards. Do Latinas have the same access as women of other racial groups to access higher education and its attendant rewards? Perhaps more importantly, do women of all racial groups have the same access as white men, who despite being a numerical minority of the population remain overrepresented in the highest paid, most prestigious positions?
I agree with Henriquez that these are the structural conditions that should be the subject of focus, rather than simplistic, “one-size-fits-all” policies that fail to take into consideration the ways that intersections of race, gender, class, and other factors shape groups’ experiences differently. Latino/as are the fastest growing segment of our population, and by the middle of this century, whites will cease to be a numerical majority as the population of other racial groups continues to grow. Given our rapidly changing national demographics, we would be wise to establish policies that eliminate institutional disadvantage for all groups of color.