Using data can put a laser-like focus on efforts to reduce teen births

This blog originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Does geography equal destiny? For many of the District’s teens, it sure appears that way. More than 1 in 3 teenage females living in the District’s poorest neighborhoods will become a mother before age 20, compared with 1 in 10 in other areas of the city, based on recent estimates from Child Trends, a national, nonpartisan research center.

Teen parenthood has been linked to poorer well-being, both for teen mothers and their children. While teen parenthood is a symptom of neighborhood poverty, it may also perpetuate poverty in the most disadvantaged wards of the city.

Examining teen birth rates for each ward provides a detailed look at which teens in which parts of the city are at the greatest risk of becoming teen mothers. This information can guide the city, its schools and groups, such as the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, in their efforts to reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy.

There are dramatic differences in the likelihood of teen motherhood across the District’s eight geographic wards. A striking proportion of young women in wards 7 and 8, based on analysis of birth data from 2010 to 2012, will give birth before they turn 20, including one-third of teenagers in Ward 7 and almost 4 in 10 in Ward 8. Although wards 7 and 8 together hold just a third of the District’s teenage females, the wards account for more than half of all the city’s births to females ages 15 to 19. Equally noteworthy are the high rates of teen births among Hispanic females. In Ward 4, almost half of Latina teenagers will become mothers; in Ward 1, the likelihood is more than a third.

dc births by ward

Targeting pregnancy prevention efforts to the highest-risk areas, then, can help the District make the best use of limited resources.

If the number of teen births in wards 7 and 8 were halved, even with no decline in any other areas of the city, the estimated percentage of females in the District becoming teen mothers would drop by almost one-third.

Why are teen birth rates so high in wards 7 and 8?

Some suggest that the higher teen birth rates in these wards are because of their higher concentration of African American teens. Nationally, the teen birth rate for blacks is twice as high as for whites.

But the difference in teen births by ward should not be attributed solely to racial-ethnic differences. Other environmental factors are at play. Scholars have linked poverty, high unemployment, violent crime and a high dropout rate to higher rates of teen childbearing. Child Trends ranked the District’s wards across a range of these factors, and wards 7 and 8 consistently ranked last. And recent focus groups commissioned by the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that youth in wards 7 perceive that there are fewer teen pregnancy prevention efforts in their neighborhoods and a lack of opportunities for youth in general.

Teen pregnancy prevention efforts targeted to the highest-risk geographic areas in the District and tailored to the needs of the high-risk youth in these wards could accelerate the decline in teen births in the District.

For many of the city’s young women and men, avoiding early parenthood could be the path out of poverty and toward more education and better career prospects.