Monday, April 9, 2012

Poverty, low education correlates to teen pregnancy

How was a study published that addressed South Carolina data, but no major news outlet in South Carolina covered its findings?

Or did one, and I missed it?

As it is, I had to find out from The State Journal, West Virginia's "business newspaper," and from the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette that a study was published by Auburn University that connects high rates of poverty and low educational attainment to rising teenage pregnancy rates across Southern states, including in South Carolina.

Writing for The State Journal, Whitney Burdette reported the study's findings:

A report released last week by Auburn University shows that the high poverty levels and low educational attainment among women have a direct correlation to the region's high number of teen births.

The report, "Sexual Health of Young People in the U.S. South: Challenges and Opportunities" by demographers Yanyi K. Djamba, Theresa C. Davidson and Mosisa G. Aga finds that the instances of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases in the southern region reflect differences in sociodemographic and economic factors such as education, income and availability of sexual health information to young people. The southern region as defined by the demographers includes Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

See that? South Carolina was included in the study.

So as we got through the rest of the coverage, let's mentally insert "South Carolina" at every instance that we see "West Virginia."

Margaret Chapman Pomonio, director of West Virginia Free, said her organizations and others that have kept an eye on the issue already had an idea of what would be in the Auburn report.

"A lot of it are things we guessed, but it's good to get the facts together," she said. "The South is permeated by high poverty and lower educational attainment compared to other regions in the nation. When we looked at West Virginia after we got the Auburn report, we saw that during the years that our teen birth rate went up, our poverty rate in West Virginia went up disproportionately as well. That's not a head scratcher, but it's good to know."

According to the Auburn report, 16.4 percent of people living in the South are defined as poor. Among children under the age of 17 in the South, 22.8 percent lived in poverty in 2009. The poverty rate in West Virginia was 17.8 percent in 2009.

But poverty leading to teen child bearing isn't a new thing. In 2001, Darroch Singh released a study that analyzed data from Canada, France, Great Britain, Sweden and the U.S. and concluded that "childbearing was more likely among women with low levels of income and education than among their better-off peers." That study also noted that a "comparatively widespread disadvantage" in the U.S. could explain why teens have higher pregnancy and birth rates than other developed countries.

Frank Furstenberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted his own 30-year study of the relationship between teen pregnancy and poverty. Furstenberg stated that teen pregnancies are better understood as an effect of poverty and that teenage childbearing is not the reason why so many Americans are trapped in poverty, according to the Auburn study. He pointed to the lack of appropriate sex education and often limited access to health resources, such as contraception. These, he said, are contributing factors to unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

I supposed I should be shocked to read these findings, given the emphasis that we -- meaning, our South Carolina lawmakers -- place on "abstinence only" education.

After all, if all of our teenagers were being abstinent -- as they've been taught, at the exclusion of every other sort of information -- then we wouldn't have any such thing as teenage pregnancy.

So, in order to preserve our commitment to abstinence-only programming, perhaps we oughtn't publicize findings of this kind.

Or, maybe we should tell the truth and make different decisions about how we inform young people in our state.

Pomponio said that although West Virginia does have a network of health systems to provide teens with information and other resources regarding sexual health, many teens can't access the clinics or simply don't know about them.

"It's difficult for kids to get to clinics often," Pomponio said. "The great family planning program we have in West Virginia is sometimes hard to reach for some kids. Some kids don't know about it, and there's often this stigma associated with teen sex."

But when a teen gets pregnant and can't afford hospital bills or the cost of raising a baby, the government must step in to help. According to the Auburn report, an estimated $2.3 billion was spent in 2008 from local, state and federal government agencies on expenses related to teen childbearing in the South.
These numbers reflect public health care costs, child welfare, and for children who have reached adolescence or young adulthood, increased rates of incarceration and lost tax revenue due to decreased earning and spending. An estimated $8 billion is spent nationwide each year on treatment and diagnoses of sexually transmitted disease and infection, with overall costs to the health care system reaching more than $16 billion each year.

"That's a lot of money," Pomponio said.

Further, more than half of births in the South were paid for using public funds. According to the report, 70 percent of public money spent on births in the South paid for unintended births. In West Virginia, the expenditure amount per unintended birth was approximately $11,000. Teenage childbearing in 2008 cost West Virginia taxpayers at least $67 million.

I wonder what the data show for South Carolina's expenditures due to teenage pregnancy?

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