It is one of the great under-reported success stories of our time.
Twenty years ago, roughly 62 out of every 1,000 teen-age American girls were giving birth. Here in Georgia, the numbers were much, much worse. At the time, we had the highest teen-age birth rate in the country, at 126 births per 1,000 teen-age girls, twice as high as the national average.
The good news is that by 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the national teen birth rate had fallen to 39.1 births per 1,000 females, a 37 percent decrease and the lowest rate ever recorded in this country. (It’s still among the highest in the Western world.) Here in Georgia, the decline was even more dramatic. By 2009, the rate of teenage births here had fallen to 47.7 per 1,000, still above the national average but a startling reduction of 62 percent.
That’s a lot of individual lives that have been saved and changed. It’s a lot of money saved for the taxpayer as well. Those improvements have been pretty broadly based as well. As the Centers for Disease Control reports, “During that period, the birth rate decreased 50 percent among black teens, 41 percent among white teens, and 33 percent among Hispanic teens.”
However, the problem has remained more persistent in some areas than others. Texas, for example, has the third-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. At 60.7 pregnancies per 1,000 teen-aged girls, its rate is more than three times higher than that of Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, which have the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the country.
In Texas, that means three times more girls at risk of dropping out of high school and never attending college. It means a lot more abortions. It means a lot more children who are being raised by children, often without benefit of a nuclear family. It means premature babies, more low weight babies, more infant mortality and more dependence on government social programs.
In its sex-ed programs in public school, Texas relies upon a curriculum of abstinence-only, an approach that has been shown to be ineffective in multiple studies. Gov. Rick Perry was asked about that fact last year in a televised interview with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune, who read Perry a question submitted by an audience member:
Here’s a transcript of the relevant exchange:
SMITH: Governor, why does Texas continue with abstinence education programs when they don’t seem to be working? In fact, I think we have the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the country.
PERRY: “Abstinence … works.”
SMITH: “But we have the third highest teen pregnancy rate among all states in the country. The questioner’s point is, it doesn’t seem to be working — abstinence education.”
PERRY: “It, it, it works. Maybe it’s the way it’s being taught, or the way it’s being applied out there, but the fact of the matter is it is the best form of — uh — to teach our children.”
SMITH: “Can you give a statistic telling me that it works?”
PERRY: “I’m just going to tell you from my own personal life, abstinence works …”
We’ve seen that attitude in a lot of policy areas. Tax cuts increase government revenue, even though repeated experiments have proved otherwise. Global warming has been revealed as a hoax, even though every investigation of the data has upheld its accuracy (the most recent is here).
And as Perry stubbornly insists, abstinence works.
This is faith and ideology that is immune to evidence. It is the assertion that belief should trump outcome. And as the teen-birth statistics demonstrate, the consequences of elevating faith over fact in the public policy sphere can be tragic.
(As an aside, it’s hard to watch that clip and not be struck by the uncanny similarity in body language and speaking cadence between Perry and former President George W. Bush. It’s actually kind of weird. My wife’s family is from Texas and my brother has lived there for 30 years — it’s not as if every male in the state has those mannerisms.)
– Jay Bookman