Piecing Together the Puzzle of Teenage Childbearing

Article excerpt

As the decade and the century draw to a close, reducing teenage childbearing remains a chaLLenge to social scientists, service providers, and public officials in the United States.

Recent declines in the teenage birth rate are encouraging, but we see little cause for complacency. The U.S. teenage birth rate remains two to ten times higher than teenage birth rates in other industrialized nations. Teenage parents complete fewer years of school than older parents, and their limited educational attainment: undermines their employment prospects. Their children are at greater risk of poor birth outcomes and, as they grow older, have poorer cognitive, behavioral, and school outcomes. Finally, because the vast majority of teenage births (76 percent) occur outside of marriage, many teenage mothers and their children face the challenges associated with living in a single-parent family, including lower income and greater demands on a mother's time and attention (National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy, 1997; Maynard, 1997).

Researchers at Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center, have studied this issue for two decades from several vantage points. We track and analyze trends in teenage sexual behavior, pregnancy, and childbearing. We study the antecedents and consequences of teenage childbearing. We explore factors that might discourage too-early parenthood, as well as those that place adolescents at risk. We examine the effectiveness of programs and cultural messages intended to discourage teenage child-bearing, and we empirically test hypotheses to explain changes in the teenage birth rate nationally and variation in teenage birth rates across the states.

As a result, we are continually adding to our understanding of what contributes to teenage childbearing and what might discourage it. While the puzzle is incomplete, enough pieces are in place to offer a better understanding of this complex issue.

RECENT TRENDS IN TEENAGE CHILDBEARING

Teenage birth rates have decreased in the United States for six consecutive years (1992-1997, the most recent years for which data are available). This sustained downward trend was a welcome departure from the previous five-year period (1986-1991), during which rates rose by 24 percent. These increases in the late 1980s were particularly troubling because they followed more than 25 years of declining teenage birth rates in the United States (Ventura, Mathews & Curtin, 1998). Figure 1 below illustrates these shifting trends in teenage childbearing. In 1997, the teenage birth rate was 52.9 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19. This rate represents a significant (15 percent) decrease since 1991. Nevertheless, the 1997 teenage birth rate is still higher than the 1986 rate of 50.2, the nation's lowest in more than half a century (Ventura, Mathews & Curtin, 1998).

Variation in State Teenage Birth Rates

The decline in the teenage birth rate has occurred in every state, suggesting that the decrease in the national rate reflects broad, society-wide changes rather than changes limited to one part of the country or to one group of teenagers. Still, teenage birth rates vary widely across the states. Several states, including Vermont, New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Dakota, Massachusetts, and Maine, have teenage birth rates at or around 32 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19. In contrast, several other states, including Mississippi, Arizona, Texas, and Arkansas, have teenage birth rates at or above 74 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19 (Ventura, Mathews & Curtin, 1998). Identifying the multiple factors that account for this great variation across states is no easy task, but is a question that researchers are actively pursuing at Child Trends and elsewhere.

Variation by Race and Ethnicity

White teenagers have consistently had lower birth rates than African American or Hispanic teenagers, although the gap between whites and nonwhites is getting smaller. …