By Daniel Weintraub
Although we live in a culture of negativity that leads many people to believe that things are worse than ever, the data often show otherwise. Crime, for example, has plummeted for a quarter-century, though you’d never know it from watching the local news. Access to higher education has never been greater. And the value of the country’s manufacturing output is near all-time highs, having tripled since 1980.
Another under-appreciated development is the amazing drop in the number of adolescent pregnancies and births. And it’s a story on which California has led the way.
The latest figures show there were 20.8 births for every 1,000 California girls and women between the ages of 15 and 19 in 2014. That’s an all-time low and less than half the rate in 2000.
The news is not all good. The rate is still much higher among young women of color. And there are wide disparities among California counties, with the Central Valley lagging behind other places in the state.
But the long and sustained drop in the rate since the early 1990s is worth noting because it’s an example of how education and changing mores can affect behavior, even among a demographic – teenagers — that historically has been one of the most difficult to reach.
The change was no accident. As recently as 1991, California’s teenage pregnancy rate was among the highest in the nation. Alarmed by the numbers, state lawmakers and public health officials launched an effort to educate children about sex and its potential consequences. And while abstinence was suggested, “abstinence only” was never the message, and the state and counties made contraception available to those teens who chose to have sex.
California became a national leader in both sex education and contraception, and the results have been dramatic.
While the number of girls and women aged 15-19 increased by 110,000 between 2000 and 2014, the number of births among that population dropped by 28,000. California’s teen birth rate is now well below the national average and 20th among the 50 states.
Unfortunately, wide gaps still exist within the state. Marin County’s rate of just 7 births per 1000 teenage girls and women is lower than any state in the country. But in Kern County the rate is 45.1. That’s higher than Arkansas, which is the state with the highest rate in the nation.
Much of that disparity has to with income, ethnicity and education, three factors that travel together and are linked closely to the birth rate. The rate for Hispanics is 31.3 and for blacks it is 24.6. That compares to the rate for whites, which is 8.4, and Asians, at 3.7.
Still, just 15 years ago the rate for Hispanics was 77.3 and for blacks it was 59.1. So even among those groups, the progress has been impressive. And the rate of repeat births is also declining.
Public health experts are still debating whether teen pregnancies and births contribute to poverty or are merely its result. But it seems pretty clear that having a child at a very young age makes it more difficult for young women to get the kind of education or training they need for a life of self-sufficiency.
So the drop in teen pregnancies and births is a trend that should be more widely recognized – and celebrated.
Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report. Email him at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org