WASHINGTON – Baltimore had the highest rates of out-of-wedlock and teen births among the country’s 50 biggest cities in 1999, according to a report released this week by two national child advocacy groups.
The study, by Child Trends and Kids Count, put Baltimore well above national averages in both categories, even as Maryland rated relatively low among states in the same categories.
The percent of babies born to unwed mothers in Baltimore crept from 59 percent in 1990 to 70 in 1999, compared to 35 percent statewide in 1999 and 33 percent across the country.
Roughly 22 percent of infants in Baltimore were born to teen moms in 1999, compared to just 10 percent in Maryland and 12 percent nationally. The city has been worst in that category since 1996.
Researchers were at a loss to explain Baltimore’s poor showing, even among cities with similar populations. Other cities with a high percentage of births to black women, like Baltimore, have similar problems but not of the same magnitude, said Richard Wertheimer, senior research associate at Child Trends.
“I actually don’t have a definitive answer about why Baltimore ranks lower than other cities in that category — like Washington, D.C., and Detroit,” Wertheimer said.
But advocates said the state is not spending enough on recreaational and other programs to keep young, poor women in urban areas like Baltimore from getting in trouble.
“With more parents working, there is a need for after-school programs,” said Debbie Trumbull, with the Center for Poverty Solutions. “Baltimore City is plagued with deficiencies with regard to extracurricular activities (compared) to other cities across the state.”
State officials, however, said they recently have bolstered a campaign to foster abstinence among 9- to 14-year-olds. Billboards, TV commercials and informational pamphlets are coupled with the work of local agencies to tackle teen pregnancy through a “comprehensive approach,” said Catrice Alphonso, director of the Governor’s Council for Adolescent Pregnancy.
“Baltimore does have a wealth of programs there,” Alphonso said. “But you have to look at other issues too, like substance abuse (and) crime prevention that contribute to teen pregnancy. We need to continue education in the community and adult-and-child communication.”
The state has directed some money to fatherhood initiatives, but advocates say increased promotion of two-parent families is crucial to helping women break the cycle of poverty.
“Children that are born to single-parent households face a lot of challenges,” said Jennean Everett-Reynolds, of the Advocates for Children and Youth in Baltimore. “Stresses on that parent are tremendous. They’re not as able to provide their child with some of the intangibles like time and attention because they might be trying to work two or three jobs to try to keep food on the table.”
But Trumbull cautioned against using the study to demonize single parents.
“There are cultural differences in the ways in which we look at family structures, and your ability to care for an infant is not necessarily tied to the marriage piece,” Trumbull said. “There are women who take care of their children and work and do a great job.”
The importance of two-parent families is likely to become an issue of national debate this year as Congress argues about how to reauthorize funds for 1996 welfare reform laws. A Democratic bill in the House favors using federal funds to promote two-parent families and a reduction in teen pregnancy.