Teen Childbearing Drops to Record Low: What Went Right?

by Justin Q Taylor

The National Center for Health Statistics today released an analysis of teen birth rates showing a dramatic decline since 1991. As of 2011, 15-19 year-olds of all races are having children at a rate of 31.3 per 1000 women, a record low and an impressive improvement from the 61.8 level in 1991.

As shown in the graph below, the decline is particularly apparent in non-white populations.

Birth rates for teenagers aged 15–19, by race and Hispanic origin: United States, 1991, 2007, and 2011Image

Source:CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System.

You may notice that the two time intervals are very different in this chart. The 20.3 women per 1000 drop from 1991-2007 represents a decline of 1.3/year, whereas the 2007-2011 fall of 10.2 women actually represents a significant acceleration at 2.6/year. This is, however, a misleading comparison. These numbers appear to have been chosen for highest dramatic effect: both 1991 and 2007 are years which occur at the apex of an atypical upward trend. While it is true that the rates have declined significantly over the years, the effect is much exaggerated by the choice of years to highlight. This is illustrated by the following Congressional Research Service chart, which gives us the whole picture:


It is worth noting that an important ideological shift in federal sex education funding occurred in 2010. According to a report issued by the Congressional Research Service last month, the federal government underwent 3 major eras in their strategies to prevent teen pregnancy.

1981 heralded the first federal program to be tasked exclusively with adolescent issues of sexuality and pregnancy, the Adolescent Family Life program (AFL). They initiated a variety of intervention programs, encouraging contraception and abstinence strategies for avoiding pregnancies and STDs. In 1996, the Title V Abstinence Education block grant and other federal funding mechanisms began to focus on abstinence-only education strategies. The focus on abstinence-only policies continued until FY2010, when funding was provided for several evidence-based programs. This evidence-based approach included the acknowledgment that many high-schoolers (47.4% in 2011) have already experienced sexual intercourse and might not be receptive to the abstinence-only approach.

There are no doubt many factors involved in the change in teen pregnancy rate over the years, but the CRS chart does imply that the initial AFL approach was not very effective, and that we have gotten better at reaching teens with all of the messages we have chosen to use since 1991.

So which states are doing best at reducing teen pregnancy rates? First let’s look at the CDC’s heat map:

Percent change in birth rates for all teenagers aged 15–19, by state: United States, 2007 and 2011Image

Source: CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System.

The states with the most significant decline in teen birth rates are Arizona and Utah, both with a 35% decline from 2007-2011. In the lower 3, West Virginia, District of Columbia, and Arkansas experienced an insignificant, 15, and 16% decline respectively (with Alaska also coming in at 16%). While North Dakota also experienced an insignificant decline, it has remained below the national average in both years examined.

Looking at the 2011 teen pregnancy rates, the highest 5 states average 301% higher than the lowest 5.  While it is hard to tell from this data what is causing the large disparities between states, the broad differences indicate that it will be worthwhile to perform analyses on a state-by-state level rather than focusing on federal policy alone.