President Obama Should Save the Adolescent Family Life Program

Paul Florsheim

Barack Obama, who was born to a teenage mother, may do more damage to the health of future teen mothers and their children than any other president. If Mr. Obama goes through with his current plans to eliminate the Adolescent Family Life Program (AFL), the only federal agency that supports research on services for teen parents, it will have a terrible effect on families who need help the most.

As a researcher in public health in Milwaukee, a city with a high rate of teen childbirth, I see this issue up close. The guiding principle of my work—that children benefit from having two healthy parents who work together to care and provide, regardless of the existence of a romantic relationship—is common sense. However, most young parents need help creating a stable environment for their children. With support from AFL, I have spent my career creating and testing programs that help young expectant mothers and fathers work together as parents and successfully meet the challenges of adolescence. I have seen many young mothers and fathers turn their lives around by avoiding drugs and alcohol, going back to school, finding legitimate jobs, and learning to care for each other and their children.

Policy makers of all stripes agree that the best approach to teen pregnancy is to reduce its occurrence in the first place. But despite our best efforts, babies will continue to be born to teen mothers and fathers. These young families need effective programs to support their health and development, their capacity to function as parents, their educational attainment, and their job readiness. With encouragement and support, they have the capacity to become productive citizens, or even the President of the United States.

AFL supports high-quality, low-cost programs. It explicitly targets goals that put adolescent parents on a path toward becoming well-adjusted, productive members of society: high school completion, delay of second pregnancy, and paternal involvement in childrearing. It requires that scientific methods be used to test the effectiveness of its services so that bureaucracy and waste are minimized. It has concrete achievements, including the reduction of domestic violence and improved parental engagement with their young children.

The AFL program was the brainchild of Orin Hatch, the conservative, budget-cutting senator from Utah. In 1981, when he introduced the program to Congress, Senator Hatch received strong support from his Democratic colleague, Edward Kennedy because both men recognized that without the tools to succeed, teen parents and their children become a drain on society. As a professor of public health, I also know that the quality of services provided to disadvantaged pregnant women is a good predictor of a community’s overall health. When services for pregnant women and young fathers are diminished, it will lead to more broken families, more violence, and more crime.

With a total cost of under $17 million—less than one-twentieth the price of a $350 million F-22 fighter plane—eliminating the AFL will not help balance any books and will likely add to our budget woes by further straining our already overtaxed criminal justice and health care systems. The Obama Administration is arguing that AFL duplicates new programs in the Office of Adolescent Health, namely, the Pregnancy Assistance Fund. This is simply not true. Those programs, which are linked to the Affordable Care Act, are prohibited from supporting research. Abandoning research in this area undermines the progress made over the last three decades.

The “Deficit Super Committee” of the US Congress was expected to act on the President’s proposed 2012 budget, which cuts the AFL entirely. The Super Committee did not return with any recommendations to make budget cuts, and the government is currently operating under a continuing resolution (CR). If Congress does not act, Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius will make the cut by default. When the AFL was last in danger of being eliminated, Eunice Kennedy Shriver wrote a letter to the New York Times (1988) defending this program because it “gives so many teenagers a new sense of purpose, a new basis for self-esteem, a strengthened relationship with their families and an understanding of why they should care for themselves and others.” Ms. Shriver, a tireless advocate for science and children, was persuasive because saving the AFL program was the right thing to do.

Despite her youth, Ann Dunham, Mr. Obama’s mother, garnered the support she needed to help her son make the most of opportunities when they came. Knowing the odds against Ms. Dunham and her son, the President was extremely lucky. I have worked with hundreds of teenage mothers and fathers, and many of their children are not so fortunate. They are no less deserving.

Paul Florsheim is Chair of the Faculty at the Joseph Zilber School of Public Health, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

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