Here's some good news about teen pregnancy: the teen birth rate in the United States dropped a record nine percent between 2009 and 2010.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that fewer babies were born to teenagers in 2010 than in any year since 1946. Among women aged 15-19, the teen birth rate was 34.3 births per 1,000. From 1991 through 2010 the rate dropped 44 percent.
While the overall rate has dropped significantly, the data varies greatly by state. New Hampshire’s teen birth rate was the lowest, at 15.7 per thousand, while Mississippi had the highest rate at 55 per thousand. Overall, birth rates trended lower in the North compared with the Southern states, which is consistent with previous years' data.
Some of the variation across states reflects variation in population composition within states by race and Hispanic origin. Much of this decline in overall teen pregnancies is attributable to a strong prevention message, increased use of contraceptives from the start of sexual activity and increased use of dual methods of birth control, such as a condom and birth control pills among teen males and females, according to the CDC.
U.S. taxpayers spend nearly $11 billion annually on increased health costs and foster care due to teen pregnancy; it is also significantly affects high school dropout rates among girls – only half of teen mothers receive a high school diploma by age 22 compared with 90 percent of girls that did not get pregnant. Data shows that teen pregnancy also impacts the child’s health, school achievement, problems with the law, and employment.
Despite this dramatic decline, the U.S. still has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates of any industrialized nation. The Washington Post features an interesting graphic comparing the U.S. teen birth rate with other nations. Switzerland’s teen birth rate is nine times lower, at 4.1 per thousand.
Why the huge difference? As reported by the Population Reference Bureau, Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, with the University of Maryland Population Research Center and Wellesley College respectively, blame income inequalities. They contend that when poor teens do not see themselves having any socioeconomic success, they are more likely to embrace motherhood.
Where the odds of socioeconomic success are greater, teen girls are more likely to delay motherhood to build human or social capital.
States like Mississippi have relatively large income inequities, while states like New Hampshire do not. In other words, if poor teens don’t see any path to success, such as a good job or college, it’s more likely they will become young mothers than those that want to spend time on their education and career.
Other researchers say that the social stigma of teen pregnancy, and as well as the degree of reliance of a teen girl on her boyfriend for money, also play a role in teen pregnancies. Kearny and Levine found that while teens in higher socioeconomic brackets are more likely to experience a "pregnancy failure," typically meaning abortion.
However, this still does not explain the gap between the U.S. and most other industrialized countries. Dana Goldstein wrote in The Nation that many American teens are uninformed or misinformed about pregnancy and contraception; there is also an ongoing problem with lack of access to contraceptives.
Goldstein argues “we should ratchet down the politicization of this public health issue and take a common sense prevention approach, one that accepts that over 95 percent of Americans have premarital sex.”