A study released today by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics found that births to American teenagers dropped 9 percent from 2009 to 2010, reaching the lowest level since 1946. The study authors mention improved contraceptive use as a possible explanation. But the AP links the new data to a drop in births across all age groups, and notes that "experts think the economy is a factor." Many social scientists agree that the economic downturn has made adults more reluctant to procreate — and some think it's had the same effect on teens.
Bill Albert, Chief Program Officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, says there's no "single magic bullet answer" to why teen birthrates have dropped. He says it's probably a combination of teenagers "being a bit more cautious about sex" in general (perhaps due to better sex ed), parents talking more to their teenagers about sex and relationships, and even the influence of shows like "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom," which show the difficulties of teen parenthood. But he also thinks the economic downturn is a factor. While "teens aren't thinking about their stock portfolio," he explains, years of recession could mean out-of-work parents and a lower standard of living, which could have a "sobering effect" on teenagers.
Other experts I spoke to were skeptical of this explanation. Jennifer Manlove, Program Area Director of child development research center ChildTrends, says that since teenagers from economically depressed families are more likely to have kids in the first place, the recession should actually have the opposite effect on the birthrate. Really, she says, the drop is likely a result of better contraceptive use, which in turn may be a result of government focus on teen pregnancy programs that have been tested and proven to work. She mentioned comprehensive sex ed programs as well as "whole-child" approaches that look at all aspects of a teen's life, not just sexuality.
Saul Hoffman, professor of economics at the University of Delaware and co-author of "Kids Having Kids," agrees that the economic explanation is "not plausible." He says the economy just isn't an issue that affects teen sexual behavior, and, like Manlove, points to more contraceptive use and better sex ed.
Brady Hamilton, co-author of the report, told me that since its data come from birth certificates, not actual surveys of teens, he couldn't say for sure what was behind the drop. But whatever the cause, he points out that birth rates are at record lows for all ages under 20, for all races, and for almost all states (the only exceptions are Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia).
Albert says he understands where the skeptics are coming from, but that "I tend to give teens more credit. They tend to be observant of the world around them." He says they notice when the economy is stagnant and people around them are cutting back, and that this may make them stop and think about whether they're really ready to have a child. Whether this means better contraceptive use, less sex, or more abortions isn't clear, but Albert argues that while the economy isn't the primary reason for the birthrate drop, it's definitely on the list.
Of course, if the economic downturn really did contribute to the drop in births to teenagers, sex educators will have to figure out how to harness that "sobering effect" for better times. Otherwise when businesses booms again, the teen birthrate might too.