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Control, Efficacy and Education: How Poverty Affects Teenage Pregnancy

Understanding how and why poverty affects teenage pregnancy is an important issue. Teenage pregnancy is a difficult issue to tackle, and this sample research explores the topic in detail. If you’re looking to get writing help from trusted professional writers that work for Ultius, consider placing an order.

Poverty and teenage pregnancy – A strong combination

The last several years have seen a sensationalized version of teen pregnancy in the media. Movies like Juno and television programs such as Teen Mom and Sixteen and Pregnant have definitely brought the idea of teenage pregnancy to the forefront of modern media. Some instances romanticize it; some sensationalize it. In any case, many teenagers who become pregnant face not only the challenges that come along with raising a child, but also those hardships faced by those people who struggle with poverty. The fact that these two are related is not up for debate. What is, however, is which is responsible for which.

At first glance, it seems the obvious answer is that teenagers who become pregnant are more likely to become impoverished; however, research suggests that it is actually the other way around. Teenagers living in poverty are more likely to become pregnant than their more financially secure peers. Teenagers living in poverty are more likely to have children because they do not feel that they are otherwise in control of their future, they feel that they will not be able to reach their long-term goals, and they do not believe they have worthwhile educational and professional prospects to make it worth waiting to have a child, all of which lead to more unplanned pregnancies.

Teen pregnancy – An overview

A 2001 study conducted by Temera and Michael Young, entitled “Internal Poverty and Teen Pregnancy” discusses several ways in which poverty is a cause of teen pregnancy. The first of these is that poverty stricken teens do not feel that they are in control of their own lives. The study describes something called the “locus of control.” It explains that one’s perception of the locus of control has a lot to do with the choices a person makes. Locus of control is how much control an individual believes they hold over what happens in their own life as compared to what they believe is determined by external forces. As the study further clarifies:

Individuals with an external locus of control fail to see a connection between personal behavioral choices, well-being and quality of life. These individuals often view like as being determined by

  1. the lot into which they were born or,
  2. powerful others who restrict their upward mobility. (Young 291)

Because teenagers living in poverty tend to have an external locus of control, they are less likely to take responsibility for the choices they make, believing that it is simply up to fate. They are also less likely to say no to the pressures of sex. A prior study conducted by Zimmerman, Sprecher, Langer and Holloway explained that a person’s ability to say no to having sex is directly related to what their locus of control is.

Teenagers who have an internal locus of control are better able to refuse; those who have an external locus of control have greater difficulty doing so (Zimmerman 383). As the Youngs’ study shows that teenagers living in poverty tend to have an external locus of control, it follows that they are also less likely to refuse sexual pressure and are therefore more likely to become pregnant.

A second factor that helps to explain why impoverished teenagers are more likely to become pregnant is self-efficacy. The Youngs’ study defines self-efficacy as “a person’s beliefs about his or her ability to attain particular goals.” It goes on to explain that self-efficacy is believed to influence motivation, in that a young person who does not feel confident in their ability to reach and exceed certain goals will be less likely to attempt to meet them in the first place.

Teenagers who grow up in poverty often do not see the worth in setting and working toward goals to better their lives. On the other hand, a teen that has grown up with more financial security will be more likely to be planning for a future and understand the importance of working toward the goals they set in order to do so.

A teenager in the second scenario would likely understand that becoming pregnant and raising a child would make reaching those goals much more difficult and may be more determined to avoid pregnancy. Impoverished teens, however, do not always feel motivated to work toward future planning because they have a poor sense of self-efficacy, and because of this, they may not see the importance of avoiding pregnancy. Zimmerman’s study explains this relationship between self-efficacy and sexual behavior in the subjects of that specific study:

“females who believed that they were likely to succeed when they “set their mind to it,” in general, were more likely to think that they would succeed specifically if they wanted to turn down a request for sex” (369).

In this way, we see the importance of self-efficacy in teens in general when it comes to pregnancy.

Teens and their lives – The control factor

While it is important that a teen, impoverished or not, feel in control of their life and confident in their ability to reach goals that they set out for themselves. It is also important that they feel that they have attainable, worthwhile options to work toward. The Youngs’ study found a direct connection between childbirth and expectations of education. They found that

“female adolescents who had high education expectations, and who had parents with high educational expectations for their daughters, were less likely to experience teenage childbirth” (301).

What this shows is that teenagers who feel that their education is worthwhile are more concerned with preventing teenage pregnancy as they likely see it as a barrier to said education.

Conversely, teenagers who did not feel that their educational prospects were good were more likely to become pregnant. There are two possible explanations for this: Either teens who do not feel motivated by their education expectations are not concerned with issues that may pose a barrier to said education (such as pregnancy), or teenagers who feel that continued education is not a possibility for them will find other alternatives in which to find a meaningful existence. As the Young study explains,

“Producing a child may have thus been perceived as a desirable alternative to a life that seemed to otherwise lack purpose and meaning” (301).

In either case, we see a direct connection between education expectations and teenage pregnancy.

Poverty and education

The above subject explains how education expectations and teenage pregnancy are related, but it does not show how the two are related to poverty. Although it may seem obvious that income and educational expectations are inextricably connected, it still bears some examination because the reason for it is not so cut and dry. A study conducted by Christy Brady-Smith, Rebecca C. Fauth and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn set out to examine the connection between poverty and education.

While it did see a connection between children growing up in poverty versus their more financially secure peers, this connection was much more complex than just a straightforward correlation between income and graduation rates. The study clarified:

The neighborhoods in which poor families reside are another pathway through which income poverty may negatively affect children’s educational outcomes. Financial strain limits the housing and neighborhood choices available to low-income families, constraining these families to live in neighborhoods characterized by high levels of crime and unemployment, low levels of resources, and a lack of collective efficacy among the residents. (Smith et al., 1907)

That is, crime rates, unemployment rates, and available resources are all negatively affected by poverty. Lack of education shows an increase in crime and unemployment and lack of resources leads to a decrease in educational quality. A teenager who lives in an area with high crime, high unemployment and low levels of needed resources will likely have lowered educational expectations as they will be affected by the atmosphere around them.

As the previous study demonstrated, teenagers with low educational expectations are more likely to become pregnant. It is interesting to note that this study also cites efficacy as a factor affected by poverty levels. As previous studies have shown, efficacy also affects teenagers and the likelihood of pregnancy. Here, we see that poverty plays a hand in this as well.


A review of current studies regarding teen pregnancy and poverty reveals several interesting facts. While it is often argued that teens that become pregnant face living in poverty as a result, we are finding that in actuality, the situation is reversed. Teens already living in poverty are more likely to become pregnant than are their more financially secure peers.

Studies reveal many different factors for this, but three of them are crucial in predicting the likelihood of pregnancy among teens. Locus of control, self-efficacy and educational expectations all play a role in determining whether or not a teenager is more likely to become pregnant. All three of these factors are heightened when low income is added into the equation.

What a comprehensive study of current research shows, is how intertwined these various factors truly are. Teenagers with an internal locus of control often have better ideas of their own self-efficacy. Educational expectations and self-efficacy are directly related as well, with an increase in one showing positive outcomes in the other. What this tells us is that preventing teen pregnancy is not an easy fix.

If there is a problem with one of these factors, there is likely a problem with two or even all. On the other hand, it also follows that positively affecting one of these issues may also have a positive effect on another. Overall, as is often the case with most teenage issues, self-esteem plays a major role. A teenager who feels that they are in charge of their own life, that they have the ability to set and reach goals, and who feels confident in their future prospects is less likely to become pregnant at a young age, and this, thankfully, is true regardless of income.

Works Cited

Brady-Smith, Christy, Rebecca C. Fauth, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn. “Poverty and Education.” Encyclopedia of Education. Vol. 5, 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Reference. USA, 2003. 1904-1915. Print.

Young, Tamera., Martin, Sue S., Young, Michel E., and Ling Ting. “Internal Poverty   And Teen Pregnancy.” Adolescence 36 (2001): 289-304. JOSTOR. Web. 15 Dec. 2013.

Zimmerman, Rick S., Susan Sprecher, Lilly M. Langer, and Chad D. Holloway. “Adolescents’ Perceived Ability to Say ‘No’ to Unwanted Sex.” Journal of Adolescent   Research 10 (1995): 383-399. Print.

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