By Daniel Weintraub
The daily news is filled with disturbing social trends portending awful consequences around the corner, next year or for generations to come. The economy is sluggish, our safety net is unraveling, Social Security and Medicare are running out of money, and we can’t fix any of it because the government is broke and we’re buried in debt that will be passed down to our grandchildren.
It can all be very depressing.
But there is at least one social indicator that for two decades has been moving in the right direction, and it’s one that bodes well for our future: The number of births to teen-age mothers has been in a 20-year free-fall that shows no signs of abating.
The latest national numbers released last month showed that, in 2011, the birth rate in the United States fell to 31.3 per 1,000 women aged 15-19. That’s an historic low, down from 34.2 the year before and a peak of 61.8 in 1991.
California is doing even better. In 2010 the state’s teen birth rate dropped to 29 per 1,000 girls aged 15-19, down from 32.1 the year before and an all-time high of 70.9 in 1991. California has gone from having a rate that was among the highest in the nation to one that is now among the lowest.
Why is this good news? Because kids born to teen-age mothers are more likely to struggle in life, limiting their own personal potential and, in many cases, becoming a burden to the rest of society.
These children tend to be sicker, more likely to be abused and more likely to end up in a foster home than children born to older women. They are also less likely to complete school, more likely to live in poverty as adults, and more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.
The downward trend in teen births partly reflects a trend in declining birthrates generally. It also represents a cultural shift that has seen women postpone marriage and pregnancy until they are older. Welfare reform, which made it tougher to raise children in poverty, also might have played a role.
But there is more to it than that.
The availability of free or low-cost birth control, better sex education, and public information campaigns all appear to have helped persuade girls and young women to abstain or engage in protected sex to avoid pregnancy.
California is a special case. The federal immigration reform of the 1980s, which legalized millions of young men, is believed to have sparked a mini baby-boom as those men were reunited with their wives and girlfriends. By 1991, California’s teen birth rate was at an all-time high and was the 11th highest in the nation.
But California was also on the forefront of the family planning movement, and, generally, more progressive about educating girls about pregnancy and warning young men about the consequences of having sex with a minor. The state also offers free or low-cost contraception to low-income women.
Given the state’s large immigrant population, it’s all the more remarkable that California has been able to drive its rate to below the national average. Immigrants throughout the nation’s history have tended to have higher birth rates than native-born women.
Latinos in California still have higher teen-age birth rates than other ethnic groups. The rate for Latinos was 45 per 1,000 in 2010, down from 50.8 the year before. That compares to 34 for African Americans, 22.2 for American Indians, 10.9 for whites and 7.3 for Asian Americans.
But ethnicity isn’t the only story. As with so many other things, geography appears to be destiny.
Teens in the Central Valley, for example, have more babies, regardless of ethnicity, than teens who live along the coast or in the mountain counties. Latino girls in Kern County are three times more likely to give birth than Latino girls in Placer County. The rate for Latino girls in Placer County, in fact, is lower than it is for white girls in Kern.
Orange County’s rates are lower than the state as a whole: 3.0 for Asian Americans, 5.7 for whites, 13.9 for African Americans and 41.2 for Latinos. The county’s rate overall is 21.4 births per 1,000 girls and young women aged 15-19.
It’s likely that income, parental education and other economic and cultural factors are driving these disparities.
“Sexual health measures mirror other measures of well being,” said Karen C. Ramstrom of the Center for Family Health in the state Department of Public Health.
And lest you think the decline in teen births is merely the result of more teen abortions, that is not the case. The abortion rate has also fallen during this period.
In 1988, California’s teen abortion rate was 76 abortions per 1,000 females age 15-19. That rate had fallen to 24 abortions per 1,000 girls and young women by 2008, the most recent year for which complete numbers are available, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the data nationwide. The institute was formerly affiliated with Planned Parenthood.
Despite the progress nationwide and in California, however, our teen birth rates still dwarf most of the industrialized world. The state’s rate is roughly double that of most industrialized nations, and seven times higher than Switzerland’s, which stands at four births per 1,000.
One study suggested that economic inequality might be a cause of the difference between the rate in the US and other countries as well as the disparity among the states and from one county to another in California. The more limited a girl or young woman feels her future to be, the more likely she may be to get pregnant and give birth.
Reducing inequality is going to take generations. In the meantime, California has a number of programs in place focused on girls in the counties with the highest rates. The goal is to connect them to role models and to their communities, set high expectations, and improve their health generally, all factors that have been shown to help girls avoid pregnancy.
Many of those programs have been cut in recent years as the state has struggled with budget deficits, but some of that money has been made up by new grants from the federal government that came after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the federal health reform bill.
The record of the past 20 years shows that there is no silver bullet. But individuals, community-based organizations and the government can all take some credit for a California success story, even if there’s still a lot more room for improvement.
Daniel Weintraub has covered public policy in California for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.healthycal.org