Counterintuitive

12.08.13

Teen Pregnancies Drop a Whopping 52 Percent in Two Decades

The rate of teenage pregnancies has fallen by more then 50 percent in two decades, and most of the credit for that must go to teens themselves.

Stop the presses–teenagers are actually doing something right. Really, really right.

Last week, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (NCPTUP) announced what can fairly be described as one of the most significant social science breakthroughs of our generation: the teen birth rate–the number of young people giving birth each year–has declined by more than half since 1991, a dramatic plunge of over 52 percent.

Let that sink in. Our teenagers–our Kardashian-watching, Molly-popping, Dougie-doing teenagers–have their heads screwed on much more tightly than we give them credit for, more tightly than they even give themselves credit for. They’re waiting longer, having less sex, and becoming pregnant at young ages with a lower frequency than at any point in the last two decades. The incredulous response from my 16-year-old sister when I told her the news pretty much sums it up: “No way!”

Yes, way. And the gains are remarkable. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, teen birth rates have dropped in all 50 states, with California seeing the biggest decline (61 percent) and North Dakota the lowest (21 percent). We’ve seen this drop in every demographic group; rates for Black teens have fallen by 51 percent, and 40 percent for Hispanic teens.

If this comes as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. Most Americans are either blissfully unaware of these declines or deeply pessimistic about our teens. According to NCPTUP, 49 percent of Americans actually believe the teen pregnancy rate has increased

More than half of the advances we’ve made on teen pregnancy–29 percent of the decline–have occurred in the last five years.

I asked Andrea Kane, public policy chief for the National Campaign, why so many people are grumpy when it comes to teenagers despite these new figures and she points to two reasons. First, when we see pregnant teens in our neighborhoods, grocery stores, and schools, even just a few, we assume the problem is large and growing. Second, as Kane puts it, “it’s hard to believe that teenagers are actually doing something right … but in fact they are.”

When it comes to reasons for the overall decline, Sarah Brown, head of the National Campaign, says there are three factors: “more teens are waiting to have sex,” according to Brown, “they also report fewer sexual partners and better use of contraception. In short, the credit for this remarkable national success story goes to teens themselves.”

But … what about Miley! And Nikki Minaj and Bieber’s latest antics and all of the other anecdotal evidence of a coarsening, overly-sexualized society.  I, like most Americans, cringe when I hear music that suggest to adolescents that if they’re not twerking, they’re doing it wrong; or watch shows that push the minimum age for ridiculous behavior lower and lower (hello TMZ). I worry that these forces are nudging our kids towards behaviors that could adversely impact them down the road.

But these new findings seem to suggest that in response to our culture, kids are developing a sophisticated filter. They’re making distinctions between what’s fake and what’s real; what’s entertaining in the gauzy environment of reality television, and what’s good for them in their everyday lives. Some advocates say that shows like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, despite the sensationalized content, actually underscore the difficulties inherent in having children too early, and present stark choices to kids. And increasingly, young people are making the right call.

This progress didn’t just come about by chance. Tellingly, more than half of the advances we’ve made on teen pregnancy–29 percent of the decline–have occurred in the last five years. In at least part of that time, the Obama administration, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and other allies have made major investments in evidence-based teen pregnancy programs that teach young people about delaying sex, understanding contraception, and communicating effectively with their parents, partners, and friends. 

The programs, called TPP (Teen Pregnancy Prevention) and PREP (Personal Responsibility Education Program) began in 2010 and operate in after-school settings, nonprofits and congregations around the country. By most accounts, they are models of effectiveness. The nonpartisan Bridgespan group applauded them in a recent report, and Kane adds, “we're so used to hearing how the government doesn't do things well--but the implementation of teen pregnancy funding is an incredible success story.” Evelyn Kappeler, who built the federal government’s Office of Adolescent Health from scratch; Bryan Samuels, who implemented the PREP program as federal Commissioner for Children, Youth and Families; and U.S. Senator Max Baucus, who ensured funding for the entire effort, are champions of these programs, along with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, her deputy Howard Koh, and Obama himself.

But let’s not pat ourselves on the back too quickly–a tremendous amount of progress has been made on teen pregnancy, but there’s still a lot of work left to do.  Data points to a persistent disparity in teen birth rates for minority youth, and teen pregnancy still costs taxpayers nearly $10 billion every year. More than anything, the biggest danger advocates fear is complacency. They worry that with all this progress, Congress will stop funding and the American public will stop supporting effective, evidence-based programs. Let’s hope that never happens. In the face of a steady stream of Miley and Minaj, our teens need all the support they can get. As these new findings show, they’re doing their part; we should make sure to keep doing ours.