Getting it wrong on teenage mums
You can tell the paleolithic right is feeling frisky when the old nonsense about lone parents starts up again. You know, the rants we used to get from Michael Portillo and others about feckless teenage girls getting themselves pregnant (amazing how they manage it by themselves, but there you go).
Of course, its all the fault of our ludicrously generous benefit system. And who wouldn’t get pregnant when there’s Income Support on offer?
There’s a prime example in today’s Metro that manages to draw the wrong conclusions from an opinion poll the Metro itself commissioned.Headlined “Teen mums ‘are milking the system'” the article reports on an “exclusive poll” that asked “What do you think are the reasons for Britain’s high rate of teenage pregnancy?”
Sixty two per cent of the respondents agreed that “the government makes it financially attractive by offering benefits”. The article’s lead paragraph draws the conclusion that this suggests that “Britain’s generous benefit payments are encouraging teenagers to get pregnant.”
Of course, it doesn’t suggest anything of the sort. What it suggests is that a lot of people believe this to be the case – but nothing about whether they are right or not.
Strictly speaking, the result doesn’t even show that most people think the benefits are “generous” – that was inserted by the reporter. In fact, the UK has comparatively low benefits; if benefits were enticing teenagers into motherhood we should expect this to be much more common in Scandinavia or France where the benefits they can expect are more generous. But, as the article itself notes, “Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe.”
The only authority the article quotes is the engagingly eccentric Family Education Trust, which comments that “there is no doubt that state support for teenage mothers is exacerbating the problem.”
No doubt? This is the most annoying factor in this story – not just the article in the Metro, but the whole recurring brouhaha. Because actually we have very good evidence on the subject. In 2006, a team at the Institute of Education carried out a systematic review of the evidence and what will actually help prevent unintended teenage pregnancy are programmes for young people that improve their enjoyment of school, raise their expectations and ambitions for the future and prevent unhappy childhoods.
As in so many areas of social policy, poverty and inequality are the key underlying factor. Far from cutting benefits, “policy-makers should also continue to implement wider measures to tackle social disadvantage and poverty among young people as a route to lowering teenage pregnancy rates.”
We can expect to hear a lot more of this over the coming months – whatever the social problem, the answer is going to be to cut benefits. Politicians who want us to recognise them as progressives should make it plain that they will not be swept away by this reactionary flood.