Working Paper No. 12-60:
Beyond the Sex-Ed Wars: Addressing Disadvantaged Single Mothers' Search for Community

Author(s):

Helen Alvaré

Date Posted: September 2012

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Abstract:

Despite growing alarm over the nation’s nonmarital birth rate (41%), particularly its links with economic disadvantages, child outcomes and class divisions, federal and state policies have changed little over the past several decades.  But a new wave of qualitative and quantitative research on disadvantaged single mothers offers clues regarding what is driving their choices regarding sexual activity, reproduction, and nonmarital birth rates.  This paper offers a review and analysis of the leading research in this area and concludes that policymakers have overlooked an important component of single-mothers’ behavior: its “community-facing” aspect.  It appears that disadvantaged younger women regularly base their decisions about sex and pregnancy in an important way upon their desires both to create community, and to attain a status in the wider community as a recognized “good citizen.” The very few state-sponsored sex education or “youth development” programs with even moderately successful track records regarding nonmarital births tend to incorporate women’s community-facing orientation into their messages. But most state programs – whether headlined “abstinence” or “comprehensive sex education” programs -- do not. They rather assume that the young woman is oriented almost exclusively toward maximizing her own self-interest.  This paper will propose ways in which the state might respect single women’s community-facing orientation and aspirations, and incorporate these more effectively into its speech and its programs treating nonmarital sex and pregnancy.