Teen Birth Rates on the Rise -- Policies to Reverse Course

As recently reported in USA Today, a report issued by the National Center for Health Statistics shows that between 2005 and 2006, the teen birth rate increased in 26 states, reversing a 14-year decline in teen birth rates.   While states that historically had the lowest birth rates showed non-significant changes (New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut), states with already high teen birth rates (Arkansas, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas) showed increases, leaving Mississippi with the highest rate of 68.4 births for every 1,000 female teen ages 15-19. Alaska showed the greatest increase in teen birth rates (up 19%), while the District of Columbia reported the most dramatic decline in rates (down 24%). 

The numbers do not bode well for child wellbeing. In study after study, research has shown that children born and raised in single mother households are poorer than other children, and that other negative  child outcomes follow. Children born to teen unmarried mothers, who often interrupt schooling to have their babies, are most vulnerable.  A Hoffman and Foster study cited in a recent volume of the Future of Children volume on Poverty estimated that delaying childbearing among teens would increase median family income by a factor of 1.5 to 2.2, and reduce poverty rates by even more.

The policy goal, therefore, is to reverse course and return to the downward trend in teen pregnancy. But how do we do that? In their Future of Children article on this topic, Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson demonstrate that programs to prevent teen childbearing by reducing sexual activity and promoting contraceptive use have NOT been proven to be successful. More often than not, programs designed to postpone sexual behavior fail to delay its onset or reduce its frequency. Some more intensive interventions that provide mentoring and constructive after-school activities have had more positive results, but it is unclear whether these can be replicated on a larger scale. 
 
Two other Future of Children authors, Paul Amato and Rebecca Maynard agree that the evidence on the effectiveness of programs is slim, and what we do know is not encouraging. However, they note that the programs have never truly been tested in an experimental setting. Therefore, they argue that schools should continue to offer health and sex education, starting no later than middle school, and that promising programs should be tested using the “gold standard” of research, where the comparison group is truly “treatment free.”   Armed with good social science data, the federal government could provide school districts with tested curriculum models. 
 
Since some teens, particularly low-income youth, still get pregnant despite access to contraception, we need to consider and challenge the social norms that have led to acceptance of teen child bearing. Education programs and public service campaigns (some of which are profiled in “Using the Media to Promote Adolescent Wellbeing") can support the message that nonmarital childbearing, particularly in the teenage years, is NOT an expected stage in life. 
 
The investment in good, research based programs would be worth it. If a universal program initiative succeeded in cutting the teenage birth rate in half, the estimated return on the investment would be approximately 20 percent.
 
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