The Times

September 5 1999

Impoverished lives

The Sunday Times

Amid the general rise in prosperity in Britain, it is occasionally hard not to be gloomy about the state of society. A 12-year-old girl, whose own mother is 26, has given birth to a baby. Another 12-year-old is pregnant and determined to keep her baby, as the father-to-be, a mere 14, boasts of his 10 conquests in a sex life dating back to the age of nine. He was often drunk, he says, and blames sex education at school for encouraging him. These are not isolated examples. Every year about 90,000 teenagers become pregnant, most of them unmarried, with 8,000 under the age of 16. In 1997, 2,200 girls aged 14 or under gave birth. In the rest of Europe, rising economic prosperity and greater taboos against teenage mothers have produced a significant drop in the numbers. In Britain there has been no such fall, putting us in the unenviable position of being the leading European nation in producing so-called "gymslip" mums.

The sad fact is that a loss of parental authority, greater acceptance of young mothers and financial rewards in the short term have led to the steady rise. Young girls, bored and dragged down by the poverty of their own ambition, are all too willing to indulge feckless young men. A baby is their route to more generous benefits, a council flat and, as one girl put it, "to having someone to love". In fact, it means a dead-end existence and the perpetuation of the underclass. As Tony Blair said: "Teenage mothers are less likely to finish their education, less likely to find a good job, and more likely to end up as single parents and bringing up their children in poverty. The children themselves run a much greater risk of poor health, and have a much higher chance of becoming teenage mothers themselves. Our failure to tackle this problem has cost the teenagers, their children and the country dear."

The problem of teenage pregnancies reflects a cocktail of changing sexual morals, a perceived lack of opportunity and a willingness among some to free-ride on the back of the state in a way that would once have attracted widespread censure. Britain is becoming an increasingly rich country - personal wealth is 50% up in real terms on the level of the late 1980s. The challenge, as it was when The Sunday Times first raised the issue nearly 10 years ago, is to ensure that this does not go hand in hand with a growing underclass, alienated from the rest of society.

Despite all this, there are grounds for optimism. At least the rate of pregnancies among the under-16s is no higher than it was 25 years ago. The government, having set a target of halving the number of teenage pregnancies by 2010, is tackling the issue with national and local initiatives designed to improve sex education and to offer young girls an alternative, in jobs or training, to motherhood. More important than these are the government's broader measures. Politicians struggle to change the moral climate, but they can change the economic climate. Under the Tories, this happened for most sections of the population but not for the very poor. That is now the challenge for Labour. This week Gordon Brown will launch his working families tax credit, a top-up designed to steer people into even very low-paid jobs, in the correct belief that once in the labour market they have a better chance of advancing in it. The New Deal, despite criticisms, has offered the young unemployed, together with some of the older jobless and single mothers, an opportunity to see another life, not just the one visible from the other side of a social security window. It combines the carrot of opportunity with the stick of threatened loss of benefit. David Blunkett, the education and employment secretary, is, as we report today, championing a scheme - built on the existing individual learning accounts - which would give young people a powerful incentive to continue with training and education and even access to money to take their first step on the housing ladder.

Nobody pretends that any of these initiatives will eradicate the underclass. But in America, where the problems appeared more intractable, the underclass is shrinking and teenage pregnancies are falling thanks to a strong economy, better education and welfare reforms. We need to learn from their lessons and apply them with rigour if we are to prevent yet another generation entering a cycle of wasted lives.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.