The Washington Post reported on January 26 that a long decline in pregnancy rates among American teenagers ended at mid-decade, and the pregnancy rate has begun rising again. The story, based on a study from the respected Guttmacher Institute, suggested that Bush Administration emphasis on abstinence in high school sex education classes backfired by failing to equip teenagers with knowledge of contraceptives necessary to avoid pregnancy while engaging in sex. But the most startling finding was buried in the last paragraph of the story, which revealed a big divergence in the teen pregnancy rates of whites and the nation’s two biggest ethnic minorities.
According to the Post story, “the pregnancy rate among U.S. women younger than 20 in 2006 was 71.5 per 1,000, a 3 percent increase from the rate of 69.5 in 2005.” But when you pick apart the data, it turns out that the rate for white girls aged 15-19 was 44 pregnancies per 1,000 in 2006, compared with 126 for black girls and 127 for Hispanic girls. The significance of these numbers was probably lost on most readers. If the pregnancy rate is 126 or 127 per 1,000 each year for the five years that minority girls are between the ages of 15 and 19, the implication is that about 63% of all black and Hispanic teenage girls are getting pregnant.
The aggregate rate for all teenage girls — about 7% per year — is enough to give the United States the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. But the higher rate for blacks and Hispanics makes teen pregnancy trends even more worrisome, because surveys show that minority girls are less equipped to provide their children with the material and intellectual benefits required for a good upbringing. They are more likely to be poor, more likely to come from broken families, and more likely to lack basic skills such as proficiency in English. For instance, about two-thirds of African American children in the U.S. are born out of wedlock, so a teenage black girl giving birth is less likely to be married and more likely to have grown up in a household where her father was absent. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that these characteristics put newborns at risk not only during infancy, but also later in life.
Perhaps you are wondering why I thought this information was suitable for posting in a blog that focuses on national security. My reasoning is simply this: every threat to America’s future does not originate from external sources. There are important social and economic trends unfolding within America today that pose a much greater threat to the nation’s future than Al Qaeda does. One such trend is the increasing propensity of affluent, educated people to forego childbearing while poorer, less educated cohorts have children at very young ages. This is precisely the opposite trend from what the nation needs to sustain its lead in science and technology. It also implies higher social welfare costs in the future, which in the current fiscal environment reduces the availability of federal funds for items like defense or renewal of infrastructure. So it is important to understand not only what challenges are emerging overseas, but also what burdens we are imposing on ourselves at home, because the latter problems may well prove more detrimental to our nation’s long-term prospects.
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