Last week, the Centers for Disease Control released statistics showing that teen pregnancy rates in the United States have hit a record low. Not surprisingly these figures have received plenty of attention from the Washington Post and other media outlets. What is interesting is the way that the media is analyzing the decline. Many media sources have argued that the slow economy has caused teens to think twice before giving birth or engaging in sexual activity.
This focus on the economy as the reason for the teen-birthrate decline is rather puzzling. The early 1990s recession actually coincided with a temporary increase in the teen birthrate and the economic slowdown in the early part of this decade appeared to have little impact on the teen birthrate. Overall, teen birthrates have been falling since the 1950s and the recent decline is fairly consistent with this trend.
A 2006 study by John Santelli, which appeared in the American Journal of Public Heath, found that during the 1990s reductions in the teen-pregnancy rate were caused by both reduced sexual activity among minors and greater contraceptive use among minors. However, one of this study’s flaws is that it assumes that minors will use contraceptives as reliably as adults. Since this is not likely the case, this study likely underestimated the impact of reductions in teen sexual activity.
Unfortunately, most of the coverage of the recent teen birthrate decline centered around the economy and on television shows like MTV’s 16 and Pregnant. The benefits of abstinence-only sex education and greater sexual restraint, as always, received scant coverage from nearly all mainstream media outlets.
— Michael J. New is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at The University of Alabama and a Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.