More Good News on Teen Births, but Work Left to be Done

A new report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) shows that the rate of teenage childbearing in the United States fell last year to 26.6 births per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19, which is the lowest level on record. This data point adds yet another chapter to an evolving and wholly remarkable success story: since the early 1990s, the teen birth rate has fallen by nearly 60 percent.

This is good news. Teen childbearing is associated with a range of problematic outcomes for the young women who become pregnant, for children who are born to teenaged mothers, and for society more broadly. For example, children born to teen mothers have poorer cognitive outcomes than children whose mothers gave birth in their early twenties. Among the mothers themselves, teen childbearing is associated with an elevated risk of living in poverty and with reductions in educational attainment. And from a societal perspective, estimates suggest that taxpayers spend nearly $10 billion each year on benefits and services related to teen births.

It is important not to confuse correlation with causation in this context: individuals who are most likely to give birth as teens are probably also more likely to experience a variety of other personal challenges, regardless of whether they become parents before entering their twenties. Indeed, while a number of rigorous academic studies have found that teenage childbearing does in fact have at least some impact on maternal and child well-being, there is considerable disagreement among scholars as to how strong those effects really are.

Nonetheless, virtually all experts would agree that the ongoing decline in the number of teen births is cause for celebration – if for no other reason than that young women’s fertility outcomes are becoming better aligned with their true intentions (more than three quarters of teen births are reported to have been unintended) and that the drop in teen births has been accompanied by a sizeable reduction in the incidence of abortion among adolescent girls. Even in the wake of this progress, however, about 275,000 children are born to teenaged mothers each year, and rates of teen childbearing remain substantially higher in the United States than in other developed countries such as Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. The question, then, is this: what we can do to ensure that the downward trend in teen births persists?

Fortunately, the research community has provided us with some useful insights on this front. I discuss three of the most important of these insights here.

  • First, numerous evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention interventions have been found by rigorous evaluations to have reduced the risk of pregnancy among program participants. The most effective programs often discourage sexual activity at the same time that they stress the importance of using contraception in the event that one chooses to have sex. In my own work, I have found that such interventions have the potential to save taxpayers more than they cost because they can lead to reductions in dependency on means-tested government programs serving young mothers and their children. The Obama administration has provided funding to expand teen pregnancy programs that have been shown to be effective and to study the impacts of promising new interventions.
  • Second, the media have an important role to play. Several evaluations, for instance, have shown that mass media campaigns encouraging condom use have contributed to improvements in male contraceptive behavior. Even more intriguingly, economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine recently produced compelling evidence that as much as a third of the recent decline in teen births can be explained by the cultural effects of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant reality television shows. These shows have highlighted many of the greatest challenges facing teen mothers, and, per Kearney and Levine’s (very well-documented) argument, they have accordingly caused substantial reductions in teen childbearing. This research underscores the importance of the ongoing efforts among practitioners to promote messages in the popular media that discourage unprotected sex.
  • A third consideration – and a crucially important one – has to do with the relationship between economic opportunity and teen childbearing. In another valuable contribution to the research literature, Kearney and Levine have published a series of papers in which they argue, based on careful analysis of their data, that poverty and inequality are critical drivers of teen childbearing. According to this perspective, young men and women with limited life chances do not perceive there to be much benefit to “playing by the rules” and are therefore inclined to engage in risky behaviors such as unprotected nonmarital sex. Thus, they argue, public policies including improved access to early childhood education programs and increases in financial aid for college may help to reduce rates of teen childbearing, and perhaps substantially so. Reinforcing this point, evaluations have found that some high-quality early childhood programs produced reductions in teen and nonmarital pregnancy that exceed the impacts of many pregnancy prevention interventions aimed at adolescents.

While the continuing drop in the teen birth rate is a most welcome development, we still have work to do – and we shouldn’t limit ourselves to doing only one thing. A sensible, evidence-based approach would focus on continuing to expand well-designed teen pregnancy prevention programs, advancing creative strategies for encouraging safer sexual behavior in the media, and broadening the economic horizons of children who are on or near the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Such a multi-pronged approach has the potential to brighten the prospects of today’s adolescents and of generations yet to come.