New York Teen motherhood has gained a bit of celebrity allure with the pregnancies of Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin, but front-line professionals see a starkly different reality involving poverty, lost opportunities and a cost to taxpayers in the billions of dollars annually.
At minimum, the public cost of births to teens 17 and younger is $7.6 billion a year, according to research presented Thursday at a national forum in Chicago. The calculation includes both the lower taxes that these often impoverished families contribute and the extra social services they require.
"Teen births do have substantial, widespread negative effects, especially for the children of teen mothers," said University of Delaware economist Saul Hoffman, who compiled the estimate.
"The children are more likely to be in foster care, less likely to graduate from high school," he said. "The daughters are more likely to have teen births themselves, the sons are more likely to be incarcerated."
There are more than 400,000 teen births annually in the United States, most of them to unmarried mothers on welfare, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
Yet over the past year, teen pregnancies have been in the spotlight in contexts detached from the sobering statistics.
TV actress Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney's unmarried kid sister, gave birth to a daughter at 17. The hit movie "Juno" featured a spunky heroine who remains at high school while pregnant and recruits a married couple to adopt the baby. And Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin disclosed that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant, would have the baby and would marry the boyfriend.
In each case, the real and fictional teens come from supportive, financially stable families, and seemed to be on track to have an array of future opportunities that a more typical teen mom might lack.
"It's been glorified all over the place," said Evelyn Rodriguez, 34, a New Yorker from a low-income background who gave birth to a son at 15 and now, after more than a decade of juggling jobs and classes, is on the verge of earning a college degree.
"People who don't have the money and great support, they say, 'Oh, wow, they're doing it - it's cool,"' said Rodriguez, referring to Spears and Palin. "But it's not cool. I've been through it. It's a job. I don't appreciate what's going on out there making it seem so beautiful, when it's not."
To the panelists at Thursday's forum, organized by the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children, the hoopla over Spears and Palin represents a squandered opportunity for a serious national discussion of teen motherhood.
"We are, as a society, uncomfortable with sitting down and having conversations about what we expect," said Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "When is the last time we said, as a culture, 'Babies need adult parents'?"
Brown's organization and its allies have deepening concerns because of the latest federal statistics on teen births. After 15 years of decline - attributed both to less sexual activity and more use of contraceptives - the teen birth rate increased 3 percent between 2005 and 2006, and a further increase is expected when the 2007 figures some out soon.
Hoffman's findings are contained in a new book, "Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs and Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy."
He said his calculations of costs to taxpayers were based on the difference between bearing a child at age 17 or younger and delaying childbearing until at least age 20.
He described his new cost estimate of $7.6 billion annually as conservative, and said the total cost to society could be more than three times as high. A previous study by the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy pegged the annual cost to taxpayers at $9.1 billion.