Study Shows Income Inequality and Abstinence Only Education Lead to More Teen Pregnancies

I imagine that this headline surprises very few of you, but I think it’s worth discussing anyway.

We have long known that low income and low education areas have significantly higher teen pregnancy rates, but a new study shows that it’s not just low income areas that have high levels of teen pregnancy, sometimes it’s high income areas too.

And better yet, as more and more conservative states begin to mandate abstinence only sex education in schools, we’re seeing just how completely impotent these programs are at preventing pregnancy. Even though teen pregnancy rates in the United States are lower than in previous years, we still have the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world, and it seems we’re doing less, instead of more, to stop it.

The study conducted by two prominent economists, looked at teen pregnancy rates in those with varying levels of income, and also in the context of where they live. They found that the pregnancy rate in areas where there is significant income inequality, that is, low-income families living in a high-income area, is at least 5% higher than in areas with less income inequality. And this discrepancy was seen even after other variables, like access to birth control, were removed from the equation.

The explanation that the authors suggest is that living in an area with such significant income inequality makes low-income teenagers feel as though they are unable to move up the socioeconomic ladder. And as such, the authors postulate that these teenagers are less motivated to try to change their status and instead choose to become mothers at a young age. I’m not entirely sure that I agree with the theory, but I think it’s definitely something to consider.

The other bit of news is that areas with abstinence only sex education have notably higher levels of teen pregnancy, which is about as surprising as the fact that water is wet.

A study published in 2010 in Vital and Health Statistics found that 7 in 10 American teenagers have had sex by their 19th birthday. Given that totally shocking statistic, it’s pretty obvious that abstinence only education is not going to work because the majority of teenagers aren’t abstinent.

To me, trying to reduce teen pregnancy and STDs by saying “don’t have sex” is insufficient at best, insane at worst. Teaching about contraceptives is not the same as encouraging sex, and it’s pretty clear that even if we don’t “encourage” teenagers to have sex, a large number of them will anyway. Given how high our teenage pregnancy rates are, it’s clear we need to do something differently, and maybe having an honest discussion about the fact that whether we like it or not, teenagers are having sex, is a good place to start. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t encourage abstinence, but it has to be part of a bigger educational program.

I think we have an obligation to do better for our teenagers and for our children. If we really want to decrease the teen pregnancy rate, we need to take a cold hard look at all the factors behind teen pregnancy and give our teenagers more support and education, instead of less.


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