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Can Television Make You Poor?

Can Television Make You Poor?

It can, if it contributes to making you pregnant. This may seem a stretch, but bear with me.

As the economy continues to strain families and push some from the edge, one of the contributing factors to poverty that is often overlooked is cultural … the role of entertainment media in the shaping of attitudes and behavior.

One of our clients  is The Ann E. Casey Foundation, and its child poverty indicators released last fall reported that the teen birth rate has dropped from 4.8 to 4.1%. In 2006, the United States saw the first increase in the teen birth rate in more than a decade, a rise that continued through 2007. After the two-year increase, in 2008 the teen birth Rate declined to 41 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19.

However the teen birth rate is still historically high for some demographics, most importantly in the African-American community (6.3%) and more alarming in the Hispanic community (7.8%). To make matters worse, currently almost three quarters of African-American babies are born to an unwed mother.

What has not changed is the fact that teen pregnancy contributes to poverty. According to the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, two-thirds of families begun by a young unmarried mother are poor, approximately one-quarter of teen mothers go on welfare within three years of the child’s birth and teen mothers are less likely to complete the education necessary to qualify for a well-paying job. Finally, virtually all of the increase in child poverty between 1980 and 1996 was related to the increase in non-marital childbearing. As the Casey report notes, teen parents are “far more likely to be born into families with limited educational and economic resources, which function as barriers to future success.” In their book Creating an Opportunity Society, Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill from the Brookings Institution note that the sequence a young adult must follow to avoid poverty is to graduate from high school, get a job and then get married. They note that teenage pregnancy disrupts this sequence in the earliest stages, with teen pregnancy being a major contributor to dropping out of high school, and thereby further complicates the mother’s ability to retain a job.

Teen pregnancy obviously is a result of teen sexual activity. Although there are certainly numerous cultural variables that contribute to teen sexual activity, recent studies by the Rand Corporation concluded that adolescents who see more sexual content on television are more likely to initiate intercourse over the subsequent year.

On the basis of phone surveys with 718 teens ages 12 to 17, researchers found that girls and boys exposed to high levels of sexual content on TV were twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy by age 20 as were kids who watched less. This follows research that revealed a link between exposure to sexually oriented TV and earlier initiation of intercourse.

As the Casey Child Trends report noted, kids are subject to more entertainment content than ever. Although by a traditional definition, television viewing among adolescents has dropped slightly, the report notes that “television content is now available on a variety of devices. Using this more inclusive definition of TV watching, use among 8-18-year-olds increased between 2004 and 2009. Children ages 11-14 watched the most TV content in 2009 (five hours and three minutes daily). And culture consumption is highest among at-risk groups such as the Latino and African American communities. Over the past several years, there have been a number of television shows which have attempted to explore the complexity and challenges of teen parenting following, intentionally, the “success” of the film Juno. However, in a recent Time article “Teen Moms Are Taking over Reality TV. Is That a Good Thing?”  Leslie Kantor, national director of education initiatives for Planned Parenthood Federation of America concludes that “despite their quest for gritty realism, the shows may create a distorted view of teen sexual activity.”

“Showing the consequences of risky behavior can be helpful to some young people,” she says. “What you don’t want is to send the message that everybody is having unprotected sex. These shows create a perception that tremendous numbers of teens are becoming pregnant or becoming parents.”

And in some cases, the “stars” of these shows have gone on to become celebrities in their own right, possibly contributing to the social destygmitization of teen and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. At Clapham, we understand that culture is upstream of politics because it shapes what we believe, and what we believe shapes who we want to be and what we chose to do. Hollywood stars are famous for their cause efforts, but if they really want to be part of the solution and not the problem, I invite them to own up to their role and responsibility to send the right messages that will help give kids a chance to climb out of poverty.

Mark Rodgers

(featured image by Micahael Vincent Manalo)

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