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Research Summaries

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Piecing Together the Puzzle of Teenage Childbearing (September 1999)

Original article by: Moore, K. and Sugland, B.

Researchers at Child Trends, a nonprofit research center, have studied teenage childbearing for two decades. In this article, two of Child Trends' senior researchers review trends in teenage childbearing as well as what contributes to it and what might discourage it.

Recent trends show that teenage birth rates have decreased by approximately 15 percent in the United States since 1991. This downward trend follows a five-year period (1986-1991) during which the teen birth rates rose by 24 percent. Although the exact causes for the decline are not entirely clear, there are several pieces to the puzzle that warrant mention.

  • The decline in teen birth rates has occurred in every state of the nation, suggesting the changes reflect broader social changes rather than changes in one part of the country or among select groups of teenagers.

  • The decline is not a direct result of the major welfare reform act of 1996. Indeed, the downward trend began several years prior to the implementation of welfare reform.

  • The decline is not due to an increase in abortion. Abortion rates have decreased since 1988.

  • Increased rates of abstinence have probably contributed somewhat to the decline in teen birth rates, but not to the extent some may claim. In 1988, 53% of girls ages 15 to 19 reported ever having had sex; this dropped to 50.4% in 1995. A similar decrease was seen among boys ages 15 to 19 (from 60% in 1988 to 55% in 1995).

  • Changes in contraceptive use have contributed to the decline in teen birth rates, but the role of contraception in reducing these rates is complex. For example, there have been substantial increases in the proportion of young people (both girls and boys) who report using contraception the first time they have sex; however, among young people who report recent sexual intercourse (past three months), contraceptive use at last intercourse has decreased.

There are a variety of factors that contribute to teenage childbearing. Four clusters of factors are consistently shown to be related to heightened risk of teenage parenthood:

  1. family problems (e.g., too little monitoring, failure to teach values);

  2. school problems (e.g., low school achievement, dropping out of school);

  3. behavior problems (e.g., substance use, delinquency); and

  4. poverty and low income.

The research on these factors combined with the research on the impact of various prevention programs suggests a range of approaches that might hold promise in further reducing teenage childbearing. For example, programs that focus on improving educational and employment outcomes may also reduce the incidence of teenage childbearing. Similarly, programs that support girls to stay in school and engage them in learning may also hold promise. Further, research suggests that traditional, knowledge-based sex education programs are not likely to have much impact on sexual risk-taking behavior. But, programs that combine information with skill-building activities seem to hold more promise.

Researchers at Child Trends also talked with young people in several cities, asking them to identify factors that might motivate them to avoid pregnancy. Teens noted that they wanted to be encouraged to set personal goals and assisted in reaching those goals; they also wanted support for strengthening family ties. Further, teens indicated they wanted sexuality education that includes skill building, especially related to relationships, and information on contraception. Finally, teens indicated that it is important to address the larger societal issues that are in conflict with responsible sexual behavior (e.g., media, easy access to alcohol and drugs, lack of role models).

Although the teen birth rate has declined steadily since 1991, it still remains 2 to 10 times higher than the teen birth rate in other industrialized nations. Reducing teenage childbearing remains a challenge. While the puzzle is incomplete, existing puzzle pieces offer some understanding of this complex issue.

Moore, K. A. & Sugland, B.W. (1999). Piecing together the puzzle of teenage childbearing. Policy and Practice, 36-42.