BY TERESA WILTZ
WASHINGTON — It’s a problem once thought to be intractable, and yet pregnancy and birth rates for Black and Latina teens have dropped precipitously in the past two decades — at a much faster clip than that of White teens.
Despite this, Black and Latina girls are more than twice as likely as White girls to become pregnant before they leave adolescence.
This glass half-full, half-empty scenario is a dilemma that continues to confound states. The racial and ethnic disparities surrounding teen pregnancy are stubborn, often a cause and consequence of poverty and a complex array of societal factors. Teen pregnancies are usually unplanned and come with a steep price tag, costing U.S. taxpayers up to $28 billion a year, according to the Office of Adolescent Health, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Some states like Mississippi have found innovative ways to tackle the problem by targeting specific populations, while others like Kansas are serving up bills that make it more difficult for teens to access sex education, which is a critical component of preventing pregnancy in adolescence, according to advocates such as the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
To truly solve the problem, these advocates argue, there needs to be a multipronged approach involving funding from the federal government and from the states, as well as intensive community outreach and culturally specific programming.
“You can correctly point to the extraordinary, off-the-charts success in reducing teen pregnancy and childbearing in the African-American and Latina communities,” said Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign. “But these rates remain far, far higher than among Whites. And that needs our full and undivided attention. There’s a role for state and local efforts — and not all of it costs money.”
According to Kate Blackman, a research analyst in the health program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, “states do a lot to raise awareness. We’ve seen some reductions in teen pregnancy — when it’s been a priority.”
Over the past two decades, the teen pregnancy rate, defined as the number of girls per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 who become pregnant, has been steadily decreasing. Progress has been made in all 50 states and among all racial and ethnic groups, according to Albert.
Since 1991, the overall teen birth rate has declined by 57 percent. The most dramatic decreases were among teens of color. Since 1991, teen birth rates among African-American girls declined 67 percent; among Latinas, it declined 60 percent, while among American Indian/Native Alaskans and Asian/Pacific Islanders, it declined 63 percent and 68 percent, respectively. Birth rates among White teens declined 57 percent during that time.
Factors for decline
A variety of factors contributed to the decline.
Since the 1990s, there has been an increased use of highly effective, low-maintenance birth control methods like the IUD and contraceptive implants, according to Albert.
The Obama administration’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, which awards $105 million in grants to programs tackling adolescent pregnancy, has been successful in helping reduce birth rates because it funds programs that have been proven to work, Albert said.
Above all, teens are having less sex for a variety of reasons, from the Great Recession to peer pressure to watching cautionary horror stories on reality TV.
The birth rates
But when you look at actual rates, they demonstrate a stark reality: Girls of color are much more likely to become pregnant.
Among non-Hispanic White teens, the birth rate in 2013 was 19 births per 1,000, while among Black teens, it was 39 births per 1,000. Latina teens have the highest birth rate, at 42 births per 1,000 teens. The birth rate for Native American teens was 31 births per 1,000, while among Asian/Pacific Islander teens, the birth rate was 9 births per 1,000.
Poverty and geography play major roles. Rural teens have higher rates of pregnancy than do urban and suburban teens. Southern states, which tend to be poorer and have the highest rates of HIV infections, also report the highest number of teen births. Education and access to contraceptives play a larger role in teen pregnancy rates than do cultural or religious differences, teen advocates suggest.
Poor teens of color are less likely to have access to quality health care and contraceptive services, and are much more likely to live in neighborhoods where jobs and opportunities for advancement are scarce, according to Gail Wyatt, a clinical psychologist and sex researcher at UCLA.
Many teen girls having sex are being exploited by older men, Wyatt said. Many underprivileged girls face peer pressure to have sex early — sometimes egged on by girls who aren’t yet having sex themselves, she said.
Then, too, teen pregnancy is often cyclical, said Lee Warner, associate director for Science in the Division of Reproductive Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “A lot of the kids having kids are the kids of teen parents themselves. It’s generational.” According to the National Campaign, the daughters of teen mothers are three times as likely to become teen mothers themselves.