Teen pregnancy has financial impact

Flagstaff, AZ – The costs associated with teen pregnancy include public health care, child welfare and lost tax revenue due to decreased earning and spending. Most teen moms don't graduate from high school so they don't typically get well paying jobs and contribute to the economy. More often they rely on government funded programs to take care of them.

Marlissa Begay, a senior at Flagstaff's Teenage Parent Program, hopes to be the exception. While she currently relies on a federally funded program to get by, she plans to graduate from high school June first.

BEGAY: After I graduate I plan to go on to college either work with disability kids or work in a nursing home.

Begay says she fell behind in school when she had her daughter. But the Teenage Parent Program, or TAPP, helped her catch up. TAPP allows pregnant teens or new moms to complete school work at their own pace and eventually return to their home high schools to graduate.

Marlissa's infant daughter Carla dressed in pink has big dark eyes that seem to find joy in just about everything. Marlissa says she and her boyfriend are unemployed and living on their own.

BEGAY: It's pretty hard bills and changing diapers, buying formula, clothes. You just can't buy things for yourself. Bills come first then your baby then you come last.

Begay is enrolled in the Early Head Start Program next door to TAPP. The Early Head Start center is quiet - nap time quiet. In one room sleeping babies are tucked into cribs. In another four one- year olds learn to eat with small forks and spoons.

Early Head Start is a federally funded program for low-income families with infants and toddlers. Parents, mostly teenagers, have to be below the federal poverty level to qualify. Early Head Start teaches new parents about child development and offers child care.

GUTIEREZ: And it does take a commitment for them to receive all these services.

Veronica Gutierez is the center director for Flagstaff's Early Head Start programs.

GUTIEREZ: We don't charge you a fee but nothing is free. You do have to be working. You have to be going to school one or the other working toward some kind of life goal taking care of the health of the child. We're that resource to get them on to the next step.

Gutierez says her mission is to help teen parents become economically self sufficient.

GUTIEREZ: It's about encouraging them to move on. It's not just child care. Head Start is looked at as just a child care program. It's way more than that.

Flagstaff's Early Head Start program costs about 320-thousand dollars a year to operate. They serve 16 families at the center and 11 at home. At times 20 families are on the wait list.

Gutierez says Head Start pre school programs have been around for more than three decades. Early Head Start was developed in 1995 to bridge the gap for families with infants or toddlers.

GUTIEREZ: What we learned with all the studies is the programs needed to get in touch with the families sooner because by the time the children were 3 the families were set on a system and been on the system for while. They focused on Early Head Start it was going to be different. They needed to be working or going to school working toward self sufficiency, which in the long run does save the taxpayer money.

Gutierez knows all too well how challenging it is to become self sufficient. She was a teen mom -- pregnant at 16 she enrolled in TAPP. She eventually got a job as a secretary for Head Start. The program pays staff and parents for college classes in child development. That's how Gutierez got her training, which allowed her to eventually become director.

GUTIEREZ: So it's kind of completed that circle for me and it's the most fulfilling thing I've ever done. You're really in here working with them and encouraging them and seeing a difference in people's lives.

While Flagstaff's teen pregnancy rates remain high, state and national statistics have fallen due to sex education, access to birth control and abortion. Bill Albert is the deputy director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a private non profit based in Washington, D.C.

ALBERT: Between 1991 and 2004 Arizona taxpayers paid about 3.4 billion over that time period costs associated with teen childbearing. At the same time we know the teen birth rate declined 25 percent and we were able to estimate that progress that Arizona made in reducing teen childbearing saved taxpayers $101 million in 2004 alone.

Albert says more money should go toward teen pregnancy prevention. He says sex ed programs that incorporate both abstinence and how to use birth control have proven most effective. But he says parents are also part of the solution.

ALBERT: We know from a survey we released just last week that teens consistently say that parents most influence their decisions about sex.

As awkward as it might be an occasional talk with your teen about sex may save taxpayers in the long run.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.