By Michaela Gibson Morris
Mississippi is seeing significantly fewer teen births, but the state hasn’t gained as much ground as the rest of the nation.
The state’s teen birth rate for girls 15 to 19 – who make up the vast majority of teen parents – dropped to 50.2 per 1,000 teen girls in 2011. That’s 41 percent lower than the 85 per 1,000 teen birth rate in 1991.
“It’s still too high,” said Debbie Jones, who is part of the Lee County Fourth District Community Development Group that organized a workshop and ongoing mentoring for young mothers in Lee County.
The drop put Mississippi just ahead of Arkansas and out of last place among the states.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has made reducing teen pregnancy a priority and has traveled the state to encourage a grassroots response to the problem.
“It is going to take everyone,” Bryant said. “It is going to take doctors and hospitals and teachers and superintendents, legislators and other things, moms and dads.”
In spite of the progress, redoubled efforts are necessary because the cost of teen birth is steep for young parents, their families and taxpayers.
As a nation, the United States saw its teen birth rate drop by nearly half over a 20-year period, declining from 61.8 per 1,000 teen girls to 31.3.
The federal Centers for Disease Control attributes the drop to a number of factors including strong teen pregnancy prevention messages and more sexually active teens using contraception.
“We need to recognize if that has been the reason for the decline then we need to continue investments in access to health care and contraception,” said Jamie Bardwell, director of programs for the Women’s Fund of Mississippi.
In Northeast Mississippi, teen pregnancy rates have dropped in 15 of 16 counties since 2000. Only Itawamba County had an increase – one additional pregnancy in 2011, compared to 2000.
Almost everywhere in the region, the rates dropped significantly for both white and African-American girls.
In the middle of the decade, teen pregnancy rates bubbled up in several Northeast Mississippi counties. In 2007, eight Northeast Mississippi counties had teen pregnancy rates higher than 90 per 1,000 teen girls. In 2011, there are none.
Benton and Tippah counties saw their pregnancy rates decline by nearly 40 percent over that period.
Lafayette and Oktibbeha counties have the two lowest teen pregnancy rates in the state at 23 per 1,000 teen girls and 24.3 respectively.
Lee County, with a rate of 68.6 per 1,000 teen girls, is worse than the state average of 57.6, like nine of the 16 counties in the region.
A 2011 report from the Mississippi Economic Policy Center and the Women’s Fund found teen births cost Mississippi $155 million in 2009.
Using a calculator created by the National Campaign for the Prevention of Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the 172 births to Lee County teen moms in 2011 will cost an estimated $3,735,000. Half of those costs are born by the federal government; the rest by local and state taxpayers.
It could be much worse. The declines in the teen birth rate saved Mississippi about $95 million between 1991 and 2008.
By some estimates, 80 percent of teen moms will receive welfare assistance and public health care at some point.
Only 40 percent of teen moms finish high school; about a third of female dropouts cite pregnancy and parenthood as the reason for leaving school. Less than 2 percent finish college.
But it’s not just the moms who face loss of opportunity.
“I think a lot of times there is a discussion of the public welfare costs associated with a teen birth and that is not the most significant cost associated with teen births,” said Sarah Welker Allin, a former policy analyst with the Mississippi Economic Policy Center. “Most of it is the outcomes for that child over time because of the environment they are in.”
Already, a third of Mississippi’s children live in poverty. Having a teen parent makes it more likely you will fall into that category.
“It is not that pregnancy leads you to be in poverty. (Teen pregnancy) just makes you more likely to be in deeper poverty,” Bardwell said. “It should be no surprise that in Mississippi we have the second highest teen birth rate and the highest child poverty rate. Those two really go hand-in-hand.”
Children of teen moms are more likely to arrive in kindergarten without all the skills they need to be ready to learn.
Because of the stresses and strains, children of teen moms are at higher risk for neglect and abuse. They are at higher risk for repeating the cycle of teen parenthood and dropping out of school.
“There are some great teen parents,” but they need a tremendous amount of coaching and resources, Davis said. “For them to survive and thrive in the society we live in, they’re going to need support.”
The human cost is staggering, but there are long term consequences for Mississippi if the state doesn’t make more substantial progress, Bryant said.
“If our teens continue to fail and drop out of school and struggle with not just one child, but perhaps two or three as a teenage mom then we will not have the workforce capable of bringing in the Yokohama tire companies and the Toyotas and the Nissans and the GEs,” Bryant said at an August community forum in Tupelo. “It won’t exist any more. There will be a finite number of educated children in this state that we can go out and say to companies bring your new high-tech, advanced manufacturing industry here because we have the workforce to do it.
We’re going to have to turn this around.”