Breaking Down Barriers: A 60% Reduction in Teen Births

It didn’t get a lot of attention during a time when political campaigns are focused on what is wrong with America that the candidates promise to fix, but yesterday the CDC announced some great news.

The number of teenagers in the U.S. giving birth is at an all-time low, according to federal health officials. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that teen birth rates have declined 61 percent since the early 1990s. In 1991, the birth rate among females age 15 to 19 was 61.8 per 1,000. As of 2014, that number has declined to 24.2 per 1,000, the lowest it’s been for decades.

Rates have declined across all racial and ethnic groups, even those that historically have had a higher number of teen pregnancies: Between 2006 and 2014, the largest decline occurred in Hispanics (51 percent) and blacks (44 percent), followed by whites (35 percent).

My first reaction was to remember when President Obama compared Republicans to Grumpy Cat.

While they try to convince us all that our country is on the verge of total collapse, the good news just continues to roll in.

But perhaps more importantly, we need to know what is working to reduce the number of teenagers giving birth – because there is still work to be done. That is one of those hard and complex questions to answer. But here’s a hint:

The findings of the report also appear to align with some nationwide trends in sex education. For example, the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks state policies on sex ed guidelines, found that Arkansas doesn’t have any state laws requiring public schools to teach any sex education curriculum—and if sex ed is provided, schools must include information on abstinence. Arkansas has the highest overall teen birth rate, according to the CDC report.

You might remember that during the last Bush administration, abstinence programs replaced much of the sex ed curriculums. That trend was reversed.

In recent years, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have provided resources for local communities to implement programs that provide evidence-based sex education and offer access to free birth control…

The CDC report finds that teen birth rates tend to be highest in places with more unemployment and lower education levels. Currently, the HHS’s Office of Adolescent Health funds more than 80 evidence-based Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs nationally, according to the CDC. These grants target underserved communities with large populations of teens at high risk for unwanted pregnancy.

We need to keep in mind that – while less glamorous than other issues currently being debated – this one affects some of the most vulnerable among us, perhaps for generations.

Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of teen pregnancy and childbearing. Two-thirds of young unmarried mothers are poor and around 25 percent go on welfare within three years of a child’s birth. Low educational attainment among teen mothers affects their economic opportunities and earnings in later years. Teen mothers are less likely to complete high school or college, and are therefore less likely to find well-paying jobs. This reality is evident in the fact that over the past 20 years, the median income for college graduates has increased 19 percent, while income among high school drop-outs has decreased 28 percent.The economic consequences of dropping out of school often contribute to the perpetual cycle of economic hardship and poverty that spans generations.

The news yesterday about the dramatic drop in teen births means that far fewer young women will be trapped in the generational cycle of poverty. At least one of the barriers to their success has been eliminated. That is something to be celebrated…and built upon. It’s also a pretty good place to play the woman card.

Update: When it comes to identifying the factors that have led to this reduction in the number of teen births, consider this from Kevin Drum:

The reduction in blood lead levels over the past few decades seems to be a very strong predictor of the drop in teen pregnancy levels…

Just keep in mind that sometimes neither “traditional moral values” nor economic stagnation provides all the answers. Sometimes you ought to be looking elsewhere.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .