Teenage girls get pregnant. Boys go to prison. Why?

Both teen pregnancy and crime tend to be the products of poor education, family instability and no jobs
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The Independent Online

Can it really be a coincidence? Among the major developed countries, Britain is second only to the United States in its rates of teenage pregnancy. And among the developed countries, Britain is second only to the US in the size of its prison population.

Can it really be a coincidence? Among the major developed countries, Britain is second only to the United States in its rates of teenage pregnancy. And among the developed countries, Britain is second only to the US in the size of its prison population.

No, of course it isn't a coincidence. The two sets of stark facts are closely linked. Both teenage pregnancy and crime tend to be the products of poor education, family instability and joblessness. Among males, this social exclusion can lead to the poor life-choice that is criminality. Among females, it can lead to the poor life-choice that is early motherhood.

Here in Britain, and there in the US, we all agree that education should be good, that families should be happy and that people should have jobs. But, for whatever reasons, neither nation wants these desirable outcomes quite enough for their populations to accept higher taxation as part of a package that might ensure more of these happy situations in the future.

This, to my mind, is short-sighted. After all, much of the tax we already pay is spent on inadequately dealing with these difficulties in the first place and thereby shifting toxic social problems on into future generations. Maybe huge short-term investment could lead, in a not-too-distant future, to lower taxation all round.

But what's the point of endlessly mithering on about that? It's not going to happen. It's as pointless as banging on about how the problem is social liberalism, as if there were some sort of magic formula for reversing that necessary component of the economic liberalism the same critics so aggressively defend – with low taxation being a bulwark of their arguments.

Anyway, even the most passionate advocates of the stemming of social liberalism can come up with no more powerful solutions than tax breaks for married couples, tighter restrictions on divorce or more effective policing of the television watershed (the latter, actually, being something we might look at if the news weren't full of "social realism" all day anyway).

What point is there in attempting to argue against the US-British economic models anyway, since the paradoxes within them stare all in the face every day, with the only generally attractive solution anyone can come up with being to camp out on the right and find non-voting scapegoats, such as asylum-seekers or illegal immigrants? Better, surely, to ask instead if we're working as well as we can with the resources that we've got.

I don't think we are, because our tendency to focus on different symptoms of the same social problems as if they are different issues leads to a lot of specialised, but not necessarily tremendously fruitful, investment of time, money and expertise.

Take the ever-present problem with teenage pregnancy. Rates in the country, though terribly high, have been falling, though slowly. Conventional wisdom – in the face of much opposition – says that the solution lies in sex education and contraceptive advice and availability. I'd suggest that the little progress we have made is down to such policies.

I'd contend as well, however, that they can only be successful up to a point. Beyond that point, there is an intractable group, encompassing many teenage girls, who will not be stopped by any amount of sex advice or free birth control. They get pregnant, not out of carelessness, or ignorance about sex, or because they felt under pressure from boyfriends.

Instead, they get pregnant for the simplest of reasons. Because it's easy, within their ambit and their capabilities. They know they can do it. They want to have babies, as they see it as the only life-changing, significant, special, grown-up, important role they can take up. Plus, of course, the poor little creatures want their own poor little creatures, who'll love them without condition.

Even the broadest interpretation of sex education, including teaching the demanding responsibility of looking after a baby all the time, will not stop these girls, because they often understand that it can be done quite easily if it is done quite badly. Look no further than the unfortunate ex-convict Patricia Amos, whose three elder girls all had children in their teens, to see that it is often the girls who have the most grim and hopeless models of parenting to guide them who are most inspired to launch themselves as quickly as they can on to the same trajectory.

The solution we have opted for to tackle pregnancy among girls aged 15-19 is fairly different to that that we have chosen to tackle teenage delinquency. The criminal justice system, despite constant laments about its inefficacy, now has an impressive record when it come to taking 15-19-year-olds off the streets and putting them into cruel and inhumane young offenders institutions, where they are then impeccably groomed for a lifetime of recidivism.

Interestingly, though, the outcome is the same – problems being forwarded to the next generation when it would surely be finer to dare to dream that we could solve them. And no wonder the outcome is the same. Think about it for a moment, and the reasons why boys (and far less, though increasingly, girls) choose crime are as close as they could be, under the biological circumstances, to the reasons why girls choose babies.

Again, they become criminals for the simplest of reasons. Because it's easy, within their ambit and their capabilities. They know they can do it. They want to commit crime, as they see it as the only life-changing, significant, special, grown-up, important role they can take up.

As for them wanting their own little creatures, who'll love them without condition, well the boys find a lot of solace in peer admiration. And anyway, the most delinquent of boys have often fathered babies too, about whom they're grotesquely sentimental while at the same time helping with their their progeny's upbringing not one jot.

The pity of it all is that these inadequately parented inadequate children make these life-annulling, reverse-of-ambition choices precisely because they do want to achieve things and mark themselves out from the crowd, but find the idea of doing that in conventional, modern ways to be far, far too daunting. They make these choices because they perceive themselves as having no others.

The scariest thing is that maybe they're right. As the developed world becomes more sophisticated, these are the people being left behind and discarded. Maybe they're not so daft that they don't see that. What we have to do, instead of scratching our heads over the strange allure of the most awful life-choices – criminality, early parenthood, drug addiction, joblessness, ignorance, boredom – is to find real alternatives that can genuinely be offered to them.

All of these children need to be educated not in little dribs of sex education, or little drabs of drug education, then a few lectures on crime and a bunch of discourses on citizenship, but in a programme of education that deals with these issues, and others, holistically. They need to be taught just how much choice there is in the wider world, and how they can get access to that choice. Instead, again and again, they're told only one thing. Be an academic success, and pass your exams, because if you don't, you're nowhere. Then we wonder why they decide to wander off and live on the other side of nowhere.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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