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The unedited classwork of a student journalist at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, currently focusing on the issues concerning the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Bristol Palin effect: Is it real?


Though teen pregnancy is a fact of life in Highbridge, Bronx, where underage birth rates are the highest in the city, it's been steadily decreasing. With a spate of high-profile teen pregnancies -- pop stars and most recently Republican V.P. Nominee Sarah Palin's daughter -- will this trend falter?

According the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 131 out of 1000 babies in Highbridge were born to a teenager between 2003-2004, the last time such data was sampled. Though 75% higher than New York City's overall average of 75 in 1000 for that same year, the numbers are a 24% decrease from record highs ten years prior.

Will the pregnancies of wealthy, highly educated teenagers like Jaimie Lynn Spears, the little sister of Britney Spears, pop star Ashley Simpson and now Bristol Palin influence teens to be just like them? Despite these highprofile women's trend setting power, Highbridge's young parents and health-care practitioners were unsure of the impact the V.P. candidate's pregnancy news would have on impressionable teens, even here where it's the norm.

Theresa Landau, Senior Associate Director at the Highbridge and Morrisania Women, Infants, Children Program (WIC) a pregnancy and childhood health center, feels that Bristol Palin isn't relevant here. "In this community I don't see the impact. I would venture to guess that even with all the publicity surrounding this that people don't know who Sarah Palin is," she says. Were she to become V.P., Landau feels it might be a different story: "Then, I see kinds throwing it up to their parents, 'well the Vice President's daughter even has a baby.'"

Manny DeLion, a 24-year-old father walking his step-son home from his third day of kindergarten, felt Bristol Palin's not relevant to the youth of his neighborhood. "If you are really popular with the crowd, it will have an impact," he said, "But if you're just famous and not within the teen culture, I think it will have less impact."

Rickie Solinger, author of "Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade", believes Bristol Palin's race and social demographic makes the possibility of her influencing Highbridge remote. "
If one talks about it without race, one is being completely inaccurate about how this plays out," she says.

feels the very question of celebrity influence on teen pregnancy is off-base. "It proposes that the female person having sex and getting pregnant is either venal or stupid. It's not a Paris Hilton phenomenon -- that is, do what she does," she says. It's a sentiment echoed by Sister Cecilia Barrett, an administrator at Siena House, a shelter for homeless pregnant women in Highbridge. The women she sees don't relate to people like Palin. "The family support system that [Bristol] has cannot be compared."

The chances of pregnancy becoming "trendy" aside, Bristol Palin's situation may have another kind of influence: lifting the negative stereotypes that surround poor teen parents. Highbridge resident Bethany Santana's friends have had babies at 13 and 15 years of age. At 25, she has a four-year-old, and considers her self a late starter. "Some people do look down on [teen mothers] like, 'oh she's finished her life is over'," she says. She feels Palin's pregnancy could change that. "She's a real live person," she said. "It shows people that it happens to everybody, not just us living in poverty."

It is no less than a sea-change, says Solinger. "The conservative evangelical men and women saying that [Bristol] is a good girl...recently those same people would have thrown those girls out of the house."


Stacy said...

Who says the girls mentioned, although they may be 'well known' are 'well educated'?

Sarah Maslin Nir said...

I completely agree Stacy, as does my professor who edited that point in my work. The young celebrity women who are getting pregnant are not, in fact, well educated, just well known and wealthy. This is my unedited version. You could be a professor! Thanks for reading Stacy!
Sarah Maslin Nir