Where did all the teen moms go?

Loved this post from last week at Vox looking at the rather dramatic, and not well-understood, decline in the teen birthrate.  Sarah Kliff systematically explores each hypothesis and the evidence in favor and against.  Now that’s good stuff, damnit, and hard to imagine many places other than Vox where you’d find analysis like this.  First, the decline and why it’s a good thing:

For five years now, America’s teen birth rate has plummeted at an unprecedented rate, falling faster and faster. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of babies born to teens annually fell by 38.4 percent, according to research firm Demographic Intelligence. This drop occurred in tandem with steep declines in the abortion rate. That suggests that the drop isn’t the product of more teenagers terminating pregnancies. More simply, fewer girls are getting pregnant…

The massive decline in teen birth rates is undeniably good news for public health advocates. Teen mothers are significantly more likely to drop out of high school. Most teen mothers do not receive financial support from their child’s father; 48 percent live below the poverty line. Avoiding early motherhood undeniably opens additional doors in a teen’s future.

But there’s something uniquely frustrating about the recent, steep decline in teen birth rates: nobody knows why it’s happened.

So, why has the teen birth rate gone down so much?  Best guess is a perfect storm of a whole bunch of factors working in concert:

We may have just gotten lucky.

It’s not an especially scientific answer, but it’s one that seems to describe how teen pregnancy researchers view the dramatic slowdown in the birth rate: a collision of lots of trends that all serendipitously happened in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

The recession, the uptick in IUD use, a hit MTV show that deglamorized teen pregnancy — each of these factors could have have caused a small decline on their own. Taken together, it’s possible they caused a much bigger change.

And if that is the case, that doesn’t portend especially well for the fast decline continuing. A few of the factors might: use of IUDs, for example, might continue to rise as the health care law eliminates co-pays for the contraceptive. Cost has often been a barrier to IUD use, as co-pays could range between $500 and $1,000.

The other particulars, however, seem less likely to forecast long-term change. The economy is recovering, and so is the birth rate among older women — it’s possible that younger women could follow. Teen Momstopped airing in 2012  (a Teen Mom 2 series still does exist) and 16 and Pregnant, which wrapped up its fifth season this year, doesn’t deliver the blockbuster ratings it used to.

Researchers are waiting for the other shoe to drop: there’s a general expectation that at some point the statistics have to turn around. “A 10 percent decline per year is not something that happens forever,” said Levine. “I don’t know that it’s necessarily a bad thing if it goes back to the 2.5 percent declines we saw before.”

Anyway, good news for teens and public health, a a great example of Vox doing truly value-added journalism.

Also, Jon Cohn builds off the piece to make the point that free birth control is a really, really good thing (sorry, curmudgeonly conservatives):

Maybe this is a good time to remind everybody why this requirement [the contraceptive mandate] matters so much to those of us who support it. Many conservatives look at the price of oral contraceptives, available at places like Target or Walmart for as little as $9 a month, and wonder why anybody except the very poor would need help paying for it. But numerous studies have shown that even modest co-payments can reduce use of medications, particularly when you’re talking about less affluent people who must be careful with every dollar they spend. That’s the whole point of making certain drugs that prevent medical conditions cost-free. It works that way for diabetes and hypertension and, yes, it works that way for pregnancy. Besides, the most effective and, for some women, the most medically appropriate forms of birth control are intrauterine devices (IUDs). Those cost $500 or even $1000 out-of-pocket. Reducing their cost can have fairly dramatic effects on their usage, if the available research is correct…

Late last week, lots of people were talking about a story by Sarah Kliff, of Vox, on why teen pregnancy has been declining in just the last few years. It’s a great article, well worth your time, but the part that jumped out at me was the much bigger decline in teen births that occurred many decades agoin the 1960s, when the teen pregnancy rate fell by about 25 percent. What changed? The big factor, as social scientists (and friends of QED) Harold Pollack and Luke Shaeferreminded me over the weekend, was birth control. The Food and Drug Administration first approved the pill in 1960.

Birth control.  Good for the users.  Good for society.  Bad for conservatives who want to control women’s sexuality.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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