NYC anti-teen pregnancy campaign may do more harm than good with shame and blame tactics

OPINION - There are certainly more compassionate ways to warn teen girls about the risk of becoming single mothers than the insulting, frightening messages being promoted by Mayor Bloomberg...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) have launched a $400,000 interactive campaign to prevent teen pregnancy. It has been lauded by some as a much-needed reality check for an age group that tends to think of itself as invincible.  On the other hand, it has been criticized as a vehicle that heaps shame on single teen mothers, while blaming those girls for society’s collective ills.

“The ads feature images of young children alongside messages to their would-be teen parents,” elaborates Miriam Pérez on the web site RH Reality Check, which monitors issues related to reproductive health. “It’s hard to describe the ads as anything but horrifying and yet another link in the chain of shame-based teen pregnancy prevention efforts.”

Regardless of your perspective, it is clear that the campaign leaves much to be desired. The way it is designed, it fails to warn young people about the most severe consequence of unprotected sex:  the sexually transmitted disease HIV/AIDS. It also fails to effectively disseminate information about condoms, birth control and health services.

It is easy to see why the campaign’s fans praise the ads as truth in advertising. The HRA’s posters in subways and on bus shelters consist of photos of adorable (but often distressed-looking one-year-olds) and hard-hitting statements. “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years,” reads the caption around the face of one such child. “NY State Law requires that a parent pay child support until the child is 21 years old.”

Yes, this is the hard truth and many parents in New York State are living with it.  In 2012 alone, the HRA collected nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in child support on behalf of New York City children.

“Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year,” cautions another cute tyke. “Expect to spend more than $10,000 a year to raise a child.”

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Yes, children are expensive and sexually active teens should know that! In my opinion, $10,000 sounds shockingly low. Most of my fellow NYC mommies are paying more than that for part-time day care and pre-school programs alone.

Thus, judging from these particular ads, it might be hard to see what all of the controversy is about. It is easy to see why New York’s Daily News praises these ads for highlighting the harsh facts of parenthood, while also stating that “Mayor Bloomberg gets credit for unflinchingly presenting them.”

Christelyn Karazin, founder of the No Wedding No Womb Movement that promotes black births within wedlock, summarizes her support of the campaign in two words: “Go Bloomberg.”

However, other posters are more jarring in their messages. “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen,” one reads. “Kids of teen moms are twice as likely not to graduate than kids whose mom were over 22.”

And this one: “If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty.”

Although I, and many others, would agree that graduating from high-school and being in a committed relationship before child-rearing is beneficial and should be vigorously encouraged, these ads seem to wholly blame teenage parents for their own poverty and their children’s drop-out rates. Are kids dropping out of school simply because of the poor parenting skills of their young parents? Failing schools, antiquated teaching methodologies in a digital age, overcrowded classrooms and a popular culture that glamorizes fast money may play more relevant roles.

Further, the last ad is slightly misleading. High-school graduates who get a job and get married before having children have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty only if they are able to secure full-time jobs. This is a relevant distinction given New York City’s 14.9 percent underemployment rate, which includes people who work part-time but want full-time work. The difficulty millions are having finding work is hardly only related to whether teens have children.