Teen pregnancy is a very serious and hugely expensive social problem, particularly in the state's fast-growing Hispanic community. Why isn't it treated as such?
The point was brought home yet again in a recent report by the Connecticut Health I-Team (see www.courant.com/teenbirths), which found that Hispanic teen birth rates in Connecticut are 8.5 times higher than those of whites and almost double that of African-Americans. Of the 2,626 births to girls 15 to 19 years old in 2009, almost half were to Hispanics, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.
There is actually good news; the CDC reports that the overall rate of teen pregnancy is at an all-time low, both in the state and nationally. But that still means 410,000 girls between 15 and 19 gave birth in 2009, a rate much higher than that in most other developed countries. One issue is poverty. The I-Team report finds that 84 percent of births to teen moms here in 2009 were to low-income mothers enrolled in publicly subsidized HUSKY or Medicaid health plans. The pregnancy rate is not dropping for teens in these programs.
A HARD LIFE
Being born to a poor, single 15-year-old mother almost guarantees that a child will start life crawling uphill. According to the National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and other sources, children in one-parent families are more likely to be poor, have lower grades and school attendance, and drop out of high school. As adults, they have higher rates of divorce and incarceration. Teen moms find it more difficult to finish high school or marry.
All of which comes at great cost. Teen childbearing in the United States cost taxpayers at least $10.9 billion in 2008, according to an analysis by the National Campaign, with most costs attributed to health care, foster care, incarceration and lost tax revenue. The Connecticut estimate is at least $137 million.
There are programs out there to combat teen pregnancy, but many are inconsistently funded and often deal with the issue after the fact by helping teen moms learn parenting skills, finish high school and so on. This of course wouldn't be necessary if the young woman didn't have the child in the first place. Somehow, more pressure must be brought to bear on prevention, on delaying childbearing until a young woman is mature enough to support and raise a child, next to a similarly qualified young man.
One promising sign is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set a goal of reducing teen births by 10 percent in targeted communities across the country. One is Hartford, and the CDC has provided a five-year, $4.5 million grant to the Hartford Action Plan/Breaking the Cycle program to make it happen. The group will hold an all-day community mobilization meeting on Feb. 15 at Trinity College (www.courant.com/cdcgrant).
Breaking The Cycle has been around for two decades, has had funding problems in recent years and, like other programs, may need a new direction.
One place to look is at the Pathways/Senderos Center in New Britain, a neighborhood-based pregnancy prevention program for youngsters 10 to 18 years old. The center, which has 60 boys and girls enrolled at any time, has had only three pregnancies in nearly 19 years. The key? Feminism.
Executive Director RoseAnne Bilodeau encourages her young women not to defer to boys and not accept roles thrust upon them, but to plan a self-sufficient future. A hundred percent of her "army of feminists," mostly Hispanic, finish high school, and 80 percent go on to post-secondary education.
This may be the key that unlocks the problem. If young women realize they don't have to be a mother at 16, often as some guy's "baby mama," and if they have a plan to educate themselves for a career, they probably aren't going to get pregnant until they're ready.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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