Urban Wire Preventing teen pregnancy can help prevent poverty
Janine M. Zweig, Elsa Falkenburger
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The US teen birth rate has declined by 67 percent since 1991 and 41 percent since 2010 alone. While many factors have contributed to this progress, the pace has clearly accelerated following federal investments in research and practices focused on effectively preventing teen pregnancy. But that doesn't mean our work is done.

In July, the US Department of Health and Human Services announced it will cut short funding for 81 programs focused on identifying effective ways to prevent teen pregnancy, including teaching about sexually transmitted diseases, contraceptives, and abstinence. Officials said this move was the result of their questions regarding those programs’ effectiveness in reducing teen pregnancy.

Though the United States has made improvements in tackling teen pregnancy, now is not the time to take our eye off the ball, as teen pregnancy is still more common among girls of color and has significant poverty implications.

Room for improvement

Despite the overall decline in the teen birth rate, disproportionate rates of teen pregnancy remain. The pregnancy rate among non-Hispanic black teens is somewhat higher than among Hispanic teens (93 pregnancies per 1,000 girls compared with 74) and is more than 2.5 times higher than the rate for non-Hispanic white teens (35 per 1,000). Similar patterns exist for birth rates, with girls of color experiencing higher rates of teen births (16 births per 1,000 among non-Hispanic white teens, 16 births among non-Hispanic black teens, and 35 births among Hispanic teens).

Many teen parents face major obstacles, including poverty. 

  • Only 38 percent of girls who have a child before age 18 get their high school diplomas by 22. 
  • Two-thirds of teen mothers who move out of their family home live in poverty, and a similar share receive public benefits in the first year of their child’s life.
  • Seventy-eight percent of children born to teenage mothers who never married and who did not graduate from high school live below the federal poverty level.

The 81 affected projects were three years into five-year efforts to build additional evidence on what works to end teen pregnancy. Money invested in these programs thus far will pay no dividends, as the research and programming are stalled with no evidence about which approach might have provided a new model for ensuring all teens have an equal chance to delay pregnancy and build a more stable and secure life plan. 

Building the evidence

The Department of Health and Human Services has worked since 2010 to build evidence about the effectiveness of programs focused on community-wide initiatives to address teen pregnancy and birth among those with the highest rates, particularly African American and Hispanic youth.  

The Urban Institute has joined this effort by developing a community-based program known as the Promoting Adolescent Sexual Safety (PASS) program. The program, codeveloped with the Benning Terrace site of the DC Housing Authority, combines positive youth development, racial pride, and comprehensive sexual health and safety content. The curriculum covers many topics, including anatomy, sexual victimization, sexual orientation, and contraception.

To increase youth participation and to contribute to the program’s sustainability, sexual health experts are paired with adult leaders from the community with varied expertise. Community members, service providers, researchers, and city agencies are engaged as equal partners. If the research shows that PASS improves teens’ outcomes, it will provide concrete solutions for other communities with high teen pregnancy rates.    

We should continue to encourage efforts to build evidence to address persistent disparities in teen pregnancy rates. Policy shifts that move us away from this goal risk halting decades of gains in teen pregnancy prevention. 

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Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Poverty Welfare and safety net programs Sexual attitudes and behavior Maternal, child, and reproductive health
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center