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Teen pregnancy rates lend new fire to poverty crisis

BY DANIEL TAIBLESON | APRIL 10, 2012 6:30 AM

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Economic and educational mobility are declining as income inequality rises. Children born in poverty are increasingly likely to remain in poverty, and children of non-college-educated parents become less likely to attend college.

It has become increasingly clear that income inequality is a problem that demands attention. Income inequality decreases economic and educational mobility, and it is now clear that income inequality produces an environment that fosters undesirable outcomes such as high teen-birth rates.

According to new research from the University of Maryland, there is a strong link between income inequality and the prevalence of teenage pregnancies — providing further evidence that we cannot afford to let the issue of income inequality go unaddressed.

It will come as no surprise to most that girls who live in poverty are more likely than their more well-off peers to become pregnant. This largely stems from fact that young girls in poverty have less access to the medical clinics, nurses, and primary-care physicians who would likely provide them with information about sexual development and safe sexual practices.

But it also appears to be the case that poor girls who live in countries with high degrees of income inequality (i.e., the ratio of incomes at the bottom of the income distribution and those at the very top is higher than in most places) are more likely than poor girls who live in countries with lower levels of income inequality to bear children.

Income inequality is dramatically worse in the United States than it is in most other developed Western nations. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that, despite having experienced a decline in teenage-pregnancy rates over the past few decades, the United States remains an outlier among developed Western nations. In fact, teen-pregnancy rates in the United States far outpace the rest of the developed world.

Teen-pregnancy rates in the United States are 25 percent higher than Russia's, nearly four times higher than Germany's, and nearly eight times than that of Switzerland's.

This phenomenon however, is not only seen cross-nationally — interstate comparisons in the United States have revealed the same link.

In 2008, the state of Iowa had the 11th-lowest level of income inequality in the United States — the average family in the top 5 percent earned 9.6 times what the average poorest 20 percent earned, and the rate of teenage pregnancies was quite low. In 2009, Iowa had the 17th-fewest teen births — 32.1 per 1,000 births.

In Mississippi, which had the third-highest level of income inequality, the average family in the top 5 percent earned 14.5 times what the average poorest 20 percent earned, and the rate of teen pregnancies was unsettling high: In 2009, Mississippi's teen-birth rate was the highest in the nation — 64.2 per 1,000 births.

In 2010, only 51 percent of women who had a child in their teens obtained a high-school diploma, and fewer than 2 percent of women who gave birth before the age of 18 had earned a college degree by the age of 30.

Obviously, teen pregnancy makes it far more difficult for poor teens to escape poverty in adulthood. If this is not sufficient cause to address income inequality, I do not know what is.


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