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Despite impressive advances in recent years in understanding of and explanation for (see von Wright, 1971) the developmental stage of adolescence during the life span (e.g., Elder, 1985; Feldman & Elliott, 1990; Gallatin, 1975; Hahn, 1995; Paternoster & Brame, 1997), there are disconcerting lacunae of knowledge in the literature on adolescent development (Jessor, 1993). As a particularly salient egregious example, there is a paucity of theory or research on adolescents living in poverty (Kelly, 1996). Indeed, in a seminal volume sponsored by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, designed to summarize the current state of knowledge about adolescence, the editors (Feldman & Elliott, 1990) conclude, "Perhaps the most striking observation across the chapters of the volume is the degree to which research on normal development has been restricted to middle class whites" (p. 488). Also, they write, "The poor youth of this nation receive little explicit attention in this volume" (p. 492). Yet, about one in five adolescents reside in a family with an income below the poverty line (National Association for Welfare Research and Statistics, 1996), or about 4 million people between the ages of 13 and 18 years. Examined by race of adolescents living in poverty, 11% are Caucasians, 37% are Hispanics, and 43% are African Americans (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1997).
Hence, lack of investigation of a large segment of the adolescent population has led to limited knowledge of psychosocial development under conditions of concentrated and chronic adversity associated with poverty, influences of poverty on critical outcomes, and the interrelated effects of certain characteristics and differential access to opportunity. Having addressed the lacuna of knowledge of sexual behavior of rural youths living in poverty in prior research (Benda & Corwyn, 1996, 1998, in press), the present study is designed to specifically focus on theoretical factors associated with sexual activity among African American and European American adolescent females and males residing in rural families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). A thorough review of the literature reveals that there are no theoretical studies of sexual behavior among adolescents in rural families receiving AFDC. Yet, this lack of information about an important aspect of development in a large segment of the adolescent population not only impedes formulation of a more complete conceptual framework of adolescence but also reverberates throughout current welfare reform proposals (see Collins & Aber, 1996).
Lest this exegesis be perceived as a mere lament on the lack of knowledge about aspects of adolescent development, it should be noted at this juncture that the United States has the highest birth rate among adolescents in the industrialized world (McElroy & Moore, 1997). About half a million babies are born to adolescents each year in the United States (United Nations, 1992). Presently, 43% of African American women have borne a child by the time they are 20 years of age, and about half of this percentage of Caucasian women in the same age range have borne a child (McElroy & Moore, 1997). Moreover, due to differential access to opportunity discussed in the present article, receipt of welfare is both antecedent to and consequence of youthful sexual activity and childbearing (Iversen, 1995). Incidence of pregnancy among adolescents has a strong inverse relationship to family income, and it is especially high among youths who reside in poverty-stricken areas such as the rural South (Handler & Hasenfeld, 1991; Hayes, 1987). Hence, a study of what factors are related to sexual behavior among adolescents residing in AFDC families is critical not only to theory development but to informed welfare policies for those rural areas as well.
It is especially important to examine similarities and differences in influences on sexual behavior between African and European American adolescent males and females because knowledge of the general population of youths indicates there are meaningful conceptual distinctions among these racial and gender groups (Feldman & Elliott, 1990; Freeman & Rickels, 1993; Furstenberg, 1993; Gilmore, Lewis, Lohr, Spencer, & White, 1997) for theory development and for new welfare reforms (Collins & Aber, 1996). Indeed, new federal legislation, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, represents the most significant change in welfare policy since the enactment of the AFDC programs in 1935. The new law replaces the 65-year-old guarantee of income assistance for single mothers (AFDC) with a block grant called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
TANF funds for cash assistance or services have a 5-year lifetime limit and establish stringent requirements for parents to work to receive these funds. Moreover, unwed mothers under 18 years of age are ineligible for assistance unless they live in the home of an adult family member or in another adult-supervised arrangement (Knitzer & Bernard, 1997).
The new welfare legislation leaves youthful mothers with the two most exercised options of employment and/or marriage (Bane & Ellwood, 1994). However, recent research suggests that many more poor women will be searching for jobs than there are jobs available (Jensen & Chitose, 1996), and that women who leave welfare for employment are more likely to return to welfare than those who leave for marriage (Harris, 1996). Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (McLaughlin & Lichter, 1997), used to examine first-marriage transitions for poor and nonpoor young women, reveal that the latter are more likely to marry than the former, but poor women who have jobs are more likely to marry than those who are unemployed. Furthermore, poor African American women have the same probability of marriage as poor European American women, after controlling for differences in economic independence, mate availability, family culture, and living arrangements. Lower mate availability and higher average welfare payments in a local area decrease the probability of marriage only among poor women in comparison to other women. Moreover, researchers in welfare issues find that the rise in extramarital living arrangements and unmarried childbearing has contributed to increases in poverty among women and children (see reviews, Bane & Ellwood, 1994; Mead, 1994).
In this regard, most research shows that African American adolescent females are more sexually active and have higher rates of pregnancy and unmarried childbearing than European American females (Brewster, 1994; Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985; Trent & Crowder, 1997). For example, findings from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth (Abma, Chandra, Mosher, Peterson, & Piccinino, 1997) show that 59.5% of the African American and 49.5% of the European American women, ages 15 to 19 years, have had sexual intercourse. Recent statistics also indicate that the nonmarital fertility rate for African American females is about 2.3 times (84.0 vs. 35.9 per 1,000) those of European American females (National Center for Health Statistics, 1995).
At the same time, the trends toward increasing and earlier levels of nonmarital sexual intercourse among youthful women have occurred almost entirely among Caucasian females, in part because sexual activity was already more common, and marriage less prevalent, among African American women (The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994). In fact, data from the National Youth Survey (Elliott & Morse, 1989) show that whereas African American females ages 11 to 17 years are more likely to be sexually active than are European American females, among those who are sexually active, European Americans have as high or a higher annual frequency rate of sexual intercourse. Moreover, the differences in levels of sexual activity by income, religion, and region of residence are less than what has been reported for a long time in policy-making arenas (The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994). For example, 60% of teenage females in poor families have had sexual intercourse, compared to 53% of those from low-income and 50% of those from high-income families; the range of differences in prevalence rates of being sexually active is only 10% between any religious denomination. Also, 53% of both urban and rural females between 15 and 19 years of age have had sexual intercourse (The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994).
This latter statistical comparison is of particular interest because developmental theorists (e.g., Baumrind, 1996; Furstenberg, 1993; Steinberg, Dornbusch, & Brown, 1992) have posited that familial influences on children's behavior are moderated by community contexts. The contextual effects on family dynamics have been thought to be especially valuable in understanding and interpreting racial comparisons of youthful behavior. For example, a familiar interpretation proposes that unilateral parental decision making and authoritarian parenting serve a protective function for African American youths, who are more likely than European American teens to live in poorer and more dangerous communities (Baumrind, 1991a, 1991b; Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1986). However, a recent study of 3,645 adolescents from six California high schools (Lamborn, Dornbusch, & Steinberg, 1996) did not support this popular hypothesis that apparent racial differences in the influence of parental strictness on adolescent behavior are primarily due to differences in community context. Rather, the positive effect of unilateral parental decision making was similar among African American youths living in predominantly Caucasian and more affluent communities or in more disadvantaged, racially mixed neighborhoods. The negative effects of authoritarian (Baumrind, 1996) parenting were similar whether European American teens lived in less advantaged communities or more affluent ones.
Most studies of influence on adolescent sexual behavior have been conducted in urban areas, comparing the community contextual effects of neighborhoods (see reviews, The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994; Lamborn et al., 1996). There are few studies of youthful sexual activity in rural settings. However, a survey of 758 eighth-grade students from three rural counties in Maryland revealed that 61% of males and 47% of females had engaged in sexual intercourse and that 77% of African American students and 40% of Caucasians had had sexual intercourse (Alexander et al., 1989). A logistic regression analyzing the effects of race and gender showed that the odds that African Americans would have had intercourse were more than five times those of European Americans and that the odds for males were about twice those for females. Moreover, separate logistic regression analyses, using the four permutations of race and gender, indicated no consistent predictors across groups. For instance, use of drugs other than marijuana or alcohol was linked to a 5 to 9 times greater risk of sexual exploration among European Americans, but to no significant increase in risk among African Americans, whereas living in town instead of the country was significantly related to the likelihood of sexual intercourse among both European and African American males, but not among females of either race. Hence, this study at least indicates that there are interactive effects between community context and gender in sexual behavior.
The paucity of research on sexual behavior of adolescents residing in rural areas (Crockett, Bingham, Chopak, & Vicary, 1996), especially those living in poverty (Feldman & Elliott, 1990; Jessor, 1993), renders the state of knowledge of what factors contribute to their sexual exploration uncertain. In fact, no theoretical studies of the sexual behavior of adolescents residing in rural AFDC families have been located in the literature. This results in a conceptual deprivation in knowledge about adolescent development under conditions of chronic adversity and relative isolation from many societal opportunities (Trattner, 1994). Understanding the factors that influence …