No time for complacency

December 10, 2007

A3 percent increase in the teen birth rate among Americans in 2006 may only be cause for concern and not panic or alarm. But coming after 14 years of steady decreases, the news is still disturbing and underscores the need to keep paying attention to the issue.

Reducing teen births and pregnancies has been a priority for at least a decade because the consequences - for the moms and their children - are grim. A teen who gives birth is less likely to finish high school, and if she is also unmarried, her child has more than a 60 percent chance of growing up in poverty. That's why the one-third reduction in the teen birth rate since a peak in 1991 is significant, although the U.S. is still way too far ahead of other industrialized nations.

It's difficult to know yet whether the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention constitute a blip or a trend. Among girls ages 15 to 17, birth rates rose 3 percent, and among those ages 18 to 19, the rates rose 4 percent. Although the largest increase was among black teenagers, there were also increases among whites, Hispanics and Native Americans.

Maryland's overall rate of births to mothers younger than 20 rose less than 1 percent from 2005 to 2006. Baltimore's rate among 15- to 19-year-olds dropped from 95.6 per 1,000 live births in 1999 to 66.2 in 2005, according to the city's Health Department. But preliminary numbers suggest a slight increase for 2006.

The most recent national figures show that even steady progress can stall or suddenly reverse.

Although the federal government spends about $176 million annually on abstinence programs, there's no reliable evidence that they are effective. Researchers report that in recent years, teen sex rates are up while condom use is down, and it's unclear whether that reflects a more relaxed attitude about AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Abortion rates have been about the same for a decade, up to 2004.

What seem most effective in preventing teen parenthood are comprehensive development programs - including mentoring and an emphasis on job skills - that offer broader views of prospective life choices.

The latest report should serve as a pointed reminder that even among successful programs and strategies, it still may be necessary to shake things up a bit for a new generation, and that even prolonged progress should not give way to complacency.

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