By Emily Heller
The U.S. teen birth rate reached another record low in 2014, with 24.2 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19.
On the decline since 1991, the U.S. teen birth rate dropped 9 percent between 2013 and 2014 alone, according to data recently released by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Significantly, teen birth rates declined for every race and ethnic group, where wide disparities have historically persisted. While the teen birth rate for Hispanic and black teens is still more than twice the rate for white teens, the new data reveal that this disparity continues to narrow. The teen birth rate declined by 11 percent for black teens, 9 percent for Hispanic teens and 7 percent for white teens in 2014, respectively.
These new data contribute to the historic declines in the teen birth rate over the past decade—the rate plummeted 42 percent between 2007 and 2014. Impressively, dramatic reductions were seen in all 50 states.
With the high social and economic costs associated with teen births, the teen birth rate drop is a major success for states and the nation.
Teenage mothers, on average, have lower educational attainment and are more likely to live in poverty compared to their peers. Births to teens also have significant costs for states in areas such as health care, foster care and criminal justice. An analysis by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that teen childbearing cost the public at least $9.4 billion nationally in 2010. The annual federal, state and local costs to taxpayers ranged from $15 million for childbearing in Vermont to $1.1 billion in Texas..
While it is difficult to determine precise reasons for the decline in teen birth rates, experts attribute it to changes in teens' behaviors, with several contributing factors.
For example, larger social factors play a role. As teen births become increasingly less common, changing social norms and peer influence may cause teens to alter their behavior accordingly—either through delayed sex or improved contraception use. In addition, the recent economic recession coincides with the start of the largest drops in the teen birth rate. Teens may act more cautiously after experiencing or observing economic hardship.
Research also points to what experts call "the MTV effect"—reality shows, such as "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom," which have brought the challenges of teen pregnancy and parenting to life for young viewers, and could be inspiring different behavior.
Experts also cite the increased use of effective birth control, such as long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), as a contributor to the sharp decline in teen birth rates. LARCs, such as IUDs and implants, are very low maintenance and highly effective at preventing pregnancy. LARC use is increasing among females of all reproductive ages, including teens. The percentage of women using LARCs increased from 1.5 percent in 2002 to 7.2 percent in 2013.
Beginning in 2009, Colorado's Family Planning Initiative gave low-income women and teens the opportunity to receive free or low-cost LARCs, which corresponded with the state’s dramatic 52.1 percent drop in the teen birth rate since 2007—the largest decline of any state.
An increased focus on evidence-based sex education is also credited in the decline in teen births. Since 2010, the federal government has invested in evidence-based approaches through the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and the Personal Responsibility Education Program.
These funds have allowed state agencies, community-based organizations and others to implement programs from a list of more than 30 diverse models shown to be effective in reducing participants' risk-taking behaviors and likelihood of becoming teen parents. The significant 29 percent decline in teen births since 2010 demonstrates the role that this commitment to evidence-based programs has played in accelerating progress.
In addition to showing exciting success in teen pregnancy prevention, the new data also reveal areas for continued improvement.
Although the nation's teen birth rate has seen a dramatic decline overall, the U.S. rate is still substantially higher than that of many other similar countries: roughly 1-in-4 girls in the U.S. will become pregnant at least once by age 20. The latest data show a teen birth rate more than four times lower in Western Europe.
Furthermore, wide variation exists in the rate among states, ranging from 10.6 births per 1,000 teenage girls in Massachusetts to 39.5 births per 1,000 teenage girls in Arkansas. Within states, rural regions and areas of high poverty often have higher teen birth rates than the state overall.
Significant disparities also remain between demographic groups, including the narrowing yet persistent racial and ethnic disparities discussed above. In addition, older teens (ages 18-19) are four times more likely to become parents than are younger teens (ages 15-17). The older teen birth rate is also decreasing at a slower rate than the younger teen birth rate.
State leaders can build upon the significant successes of the past decade by continuing an emphasis on prevention of teen pregnancy, including efforts such as supporting effective programs and focusing on groups with disproportionately high teen birth rates.
Emily Heller is a research analyst in NCSL’s Health program.