The teen birth rate is still plummeting, but no one is entirely sure why

New federal data shows the steepest declines in the South, where birth rates still remain highest

Published August 20, 2014 10:03PM (EDT)

              (<a href=''>Piotr Marcinski</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Piotr Marcinski via Shutterstock)

The U.S. teen birth rate has long been headed downward, but according to new federal data released on Wednesday, it's been in steep, steep decline for the past several years -- steep like 57 percent lower last year than it was at its most recent peak, in 1991. The report doesn't offer one single, conclusive explanation for the massive drop from 2007 to 2013, when the birth rate for teens aged 15-19 fell to 26.6 births for every 1,000 women. It does, however, provide a clear view of where the biggest decreases are happening and for whom, making room for some backwards calculations about what might be causing the decline.

Some of the data seems downright surprising: The South, for instance, had the greatest decline overall, while states in the Northeast had the lowest declines by far. The discrepancy, however, could be because southern states still have some of the highest birth rates; Texas, Mississippi and Alabama all saw some of the biggest drops, but they are also among the ten states with the highest percentage of teen births. States like New Hampshire, which had one of the lowest decline rates, is already among the states with the lowest teen birth rates, so it didn't have a lot of room to move.

Other notable trends that emerged include a massive decrease in the percentage of teen births to young teens between the ages of 10 and 14. That drop, however, was not quite met by rates for young women between the ages of 15 and 17, who encounter some of the most negative consequences of young motherhood because of their status as minors. As the researchers note, their babies, too, can face extreme consequences: Infants born to young mothers are more likely to have low birth weights or to be born preterm, which incidentally increases the risk of long-term chronic illness, developmental delays or death within the first year of life. Beyond that, the children of teen mothers are more likely to become teen parents themselves, limiting educational and career opportunities.

The report offers a few possible reasons for the sharp decline since the 1990s, citing the 1991 teen birth rate peak as a wake-up call for public officials to intervene and educate -- because intervention and education work, clearly. When the birth rate jumped 23 percent from the late 1980s to 1991, policymakers at the federal, state and local levels set out to influence teen behavior and attitudes toward sex, which the researchers indicate could still be one of the most effective influences on reducing the birth rate. More sexually active teens than ever before reported using contraception during their first sexual encounter, and there was a corresponding increase in the proportion of teens who used dual birth control methods to avoid pregnancy.

Researchers also postulate that the economic downturn could have contributed to the decline since 2007, as many teens might have become less inclined to take sexual risks given how the recession might have affected their households. Regardless of what role the recession may or may not have played, though, the reported increase in the use of condoms and hormonal birth control indicate the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education in reducing the teen birth rate -- and, because the concerns are related, the rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion as well.


By Jenny Kutner

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