No One Solution to Reducing Teen Pregnancy

Reducing poverty and teen pregnancies are not mutually exclusive goals. We should be looking for more solutions that do both.
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Why do so many people these days insist on seeing complicated issues only in the simplest of terms?

An example is last week's column about teen mothers on Business reporter Matthew Yglesias argued that low-income teen moms aren't poor because they have babies to take care of. They have babies because they are poor.

The way to cut the teen pregnancy rate, he wrote, is not to pass out contraception, teach sex education or preach abstinence -- a very limited view of current pregnancy prevention efforts, by the way -- but to provide better economic opportunities in the communities where girls live. He did not elaborate on what those opportunities might look like.

Of course, low-income families need jobs, more affordable housing, and better schools. Would these measures alone bring down the teen pregnancy rate? It's unlikely.

Consider this: The percentage of people living below the poverty line has remained essentially stable between 1993 and 2010. Following Yglesias's reasoning, pregnancy rates should have done the same thing. But that's not what happened.

Both pregnancy and birth rates among teens, including poor teens, dropped over the same time period. In Washington, this has resulted in declining child welfare cases and a sizable drop in the number of babies who die at birth.

Having babies is not always the deliberate choice that Yglesias's column suggests. Girls get drunk and in the heat of the moment, forget to use contraception. Or their male partners avoid putting on a condom, as in, "Oh honey, just this once, nothing will happen." Or, the pregnancy might be a result of assault.

In other words, poor girls often get pregnant for the same reasons wealthier girls do. But while girls in families with means may get abortions or put their babies up for adoption, poor girls tend to keep their babies who, as teens, repeat their mothers' experiences.

Yglesias fails to take note of the fact that sex education in many parts of this country is improving, expanding way beyond "preaching good behavior," or "handing out free birth control," as he put it. Some programs combine health care, academic assistance and/or employment help as well as facts about sex and contraception.

Social scientists have devised better ways of measuring how effective these programs are, enabling communities to decide which programs to adopt and which to get rid of. A recent paper from Brookings Institution, a social science think tank, concluded that although findings vary, "some of the best designed interventions produced reductions of 15 percent or more in rates of sexual activity and increases of 25 percent or more rates of contraceptive use."

A number of successful programs involve parents, some of whom may be learning along with their teenagers. Former Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, who has written for years about low-income families, believes such parent participation is crucial and can reduce both poverty and pregnancy. It should start before kids ever reach their teens, he says.

In one of his columns, he wrote "We need to have parenting centers in every city and hamlet, places where parents can go, without charge, to learn how to get their children off to a good start. We need to teach them the importance of reading to their children, talking to them...not just "academic" skills but also self-confidence, perseverance and personal responsibility....

"It wouldn't solve the problem of poverty, though it would make it more likely that the next generation would have the skills and attitudes to help escape poverty. It wouldn't cure adolescent pregnancy, but it might help a lot of youngsters to have the confidence in the future that makes postponing pregnancy seem worthwhile."

Reducing poverty and teen pregnancies are not mutually exclusive goals. We should be looking for more solutions that do both.

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