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Reauthorizing the Pregnancy Assistance Fund will help thousands of teen mothers and their children 

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Many teen mothers face poverty and lack necessary support systems, forcing them to confront overwhelming odds. It’s no surprise that high school graduation rates among pregnant and parenting teens are dismal. The statistics are especially daunting for women under 20. Less than half of the young women who have a baby in their teens graduate from high school. In addition to the challenge of finishing their education, they often struggle to find stable, well-paying jobs. These factors put them and their children at a greater risk of being socio-economically disadvantaged and reliant on public assistance as adults. These women also face a higher risk of poor maternal health outcomes, such as postpartum depression. Challenges like these have intergenerational implications — children born to teen mothers are more likely to have poor health, behavior, and educational outcomes than children born to older mothers. 

There’s some good news, however, in the fight to help young parents stay in school and achieve self-sufficiency. An innovative federal program, known as the Pregnancy Assistance Fund (PAF), has greatly improved outcomes for expectant and parenting teens and their children. A human services program often provided in schools or through community-based social workers, PAF programming offers young women wraparound services and support during their pregnancy and early childhood. PAF-funded programs provide one-on-one case management, group workshops, referrals for additional support services, and other resources teen parents need to advance their education while keeping their babies healthy. From 2010 to 2019, with funding of just $25 million per year, PAF operated in 32 states and five tribal entities, serving over 100,000 expectant and parenting teens.

PAF programs help parenting moms close the educational attainment and achievement gap with their non-parenting peers. School attendance improves. Earned credits improve. Graduation rates improve. Other recent studies reveal even more evidence of the positive impact of PAF programs.

A snapshot of all teens participating in PAF programs in 2016 tells a similar story. That year, 94 percent of high school seniors in a PAF program graduated from high school and only 8 percent of participants dropped out of school. About half of the PAF participants who were high school seniors or in a GED program had been accepted into a post-secondary education program. These outcomes are remarkable especially considering that nationwide, 30 percent of females who don’t finish high school report having a baby as the reason they dropped out. Only 5 percent of those women ever complete two years of college.

Even more, PAF program participants reported far fewer subsequent pregnancies than other teen mothers nationally. We examined the impacts of two programs designed to reduce this risk and found other recent evidence showing programs like PAF prevent future unplanned pregnancies and reduce unprotected sex, either through increasing the use of effective methods of birth control or through reducing sexual activity. Reducing repeat pregnancies in the teen years reduces the risk of lifelong dependence on federal programs. 

The problem is that PAF funding expired in 2019. Congress has not yet reauthorized the program and, despite strong evidence of its effectiveness, PAF’s future is uncertain. PAF was the only federal grant program focused exclusively on young pregnant teens and their babies. The grantees identified and focused on the youth most at risk in their geographic areas. In Washington state, the program focused on low-income Hispanic teen parents from the southwestern region of the state and used evidence-based programs for both mom and dad. In neighboring Oregon, the program targeted young mothers experiencing domestic violence, ensuring safety for themselves and their children. In Oklahoma, Native American teens living on reservations received much needed support and encouragement from case managers driving hundreds of miles to reach their clients. In Washington, D.C., teen mothers in the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods received services through their schools.  

Young parents who participate in PAF programs do so because they want better outcomes for their children and for themselves. PAF helped put these highly vulnerable populations on a path toward health, well-being, and self-sufficiency. Ongoing delays associated with reauthorizing PAF may jeopardize that progress, and in particular given the ongoing pandemic. If Congress remains interested in enhancing the future self-sufficiency of these young parents and their children, maintaining the PAF will help achieve that goal.

Susan Zief is a principal researcher at Mathematica who specializes in the evaluation of interventions targeted at at-risk youth. Jessica Harding is a senior researcher at Mathematica who currently leads a review of programs to support pregnant and parenting adolescents. Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which is based out of Sacramento, Calif.

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