April 21, 2014

Why is the teen birth rate falling?


The teen birth rate in the U.S. is at a record low, dropping below 30 births per 1,000 teen females for the first time since the government began collecting consistent data on births to teens ages 15-19, according to National Center for Health Statistics data.

The all-time peak for teen births was 96.3 per 1,000 in 1957 in the midst of the “Baby Boom,” after having risen dramatically following the end of World War II. But the composition of teen mothers has changed drastically since then. Back in 1960, most teen mothers were married—an estimated 15% of births to mothers ages 15-19 were to unmarried teens. Today, it has flipped:  89% of births are to unmarried mothers in that age group. 

The teen birth rate has been on a steep decline since the early 1990s and that trend accelerated during the recession of 2007-2009 and the years following, reversing a brief uptick that began in 2006. What’s behind the recent trends? One possible factor is the economy: a Pew Research analysis tied the declining birth rate to the flailing economy. And birth rates for teens fell faster than they did for all females ages 15-44 from 2007-2012 (29% and 9% declines, respectively).

What else is contributing to the decline in teen birth rates? Less sex, more contraception and more information.

For one thing, there has been a significant decline in the percentage of never-married teenage females who ever had sex, from 51% in 1988 to 43% in 2006-2010, according to National Survey of Family Growth data. Furthermore, among never-married teens who have had sex, 78% used a contraceptive method the first time they had sex, 86% used contraception during their most recent sex and 20% used dual methods (e.g., a hormonal method and a condom) during their most recent sex, all significant increases since 1988.

Pregnancy prevention programs and messages directed to teens may also have played a role. A recent Brookings report found that the MTV programs 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, reality TV shows that follow the struggles of teen mothers, may have contributed to up to a third of the decline in teen births since they began airing in 2009.

It’s worth noting that birth rate figures only include live births, and do not account for miscarriages, stillbirths or abortions. In 2009, the estimated pregnancy rate for teens was 65.3 pregnancies per 1,000 females ages 15-19 (36.4 among those ages 15-17 and 106.3 among those ages 18-19).

FT_teen-birth-rate-young-old-1970-2012But teen pregnancy rates have fallen, too, over the past 20 years. Looking at data reaching back to 1976, the pregnancy rate peaked among teens ages 15-19 in 1990, at 116.8, and has fallen 44% since then. The abortion rate among females ages 15-19 has also fallen over roughly the same time period—from 43.5 per 1,000 teens in 1988 to 16.3 in 2009. Of the roughly 700,000 pregnancies among teens in 2009, about 58% are estimated to have ended in live births, 25% in abortions and 17% in miscarriages or stillbirths.

FT_teen-birth-rate-by-ethnicity-2012A closer look at the data reveals some interesting patterns. The birth rate for older teens is higher than for younger teens. And we find some striking variation when looking at the data by race and ethnicity. Hispanics ages 15-19 have the highest birth rate, followed by non-Hispanic black teens. Asians and Pacific Islanders have the lowest teen birth rate. Non-Hispanic whites and American Indians and Alaska Natives fall in the middle.

There is also large variation by region, with higher birth rates in the South, lower ones in the Northeast and a mix of higher and lower birth rates in the Midwestern and Western states. New Mexico (47.5), Oklahoma (47.3) and Mississippi (46.1) have the highest teen birth rates, while New Hampshire (13.8), Massachusetts (14.1) and Connecticut (15.1) have the lowest rates.

Topics: Birth Rate and Fertility, Teens and Youth

  1. is a research analyst focusing on Hispanic, social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.

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  1. David Eberhardt1 year ago

    on another topic of ms patten’s:

    until the millenials struggle to defeat capitalism they will subject us to and themselves b subjectted to the same rotten system- the racism, the inequities, the violence, the republicans, etc. – so far- except maybe from Occupy- not a peep (chix to the slaughter

  2. Anthony2 years ago

    This research seems to ignore the impact of Plan “B” as availability has progressed from prescription to over the counter to “free: access for many teens throughout the nation. I recall an article that indicated a 200% increase in Plan “B” when it became available without a prescription and another 400% increase when it became available at no cost. I would argue that the increased access to Plan “B” is a large determinate in the reduced teen birth rates. A quick look at teen STD/STI rates shows a significant increase… indicating that Prevention Education may not be reducing the “Risky” behavior as much as we would like to think.

  3. Pam Rasch2 years ago

    These statistics are interesting and possibly encouraging since rates appear to be decreasing. I am interested to know if anyone has tracked what individual states are doing to prevent pregnancies, ie. sex ed, availability of pregnancy prevention methods, against the results achieved. I am finding each piece being tracked, but where is the integration of the data? Do you have any studies you could refer me to?

    1. Eileen Patten2 years ago

      Hi Pam,

      Thanks for your interest in my post. The Pew Research Center doesn’t look at policy decisions like this, but there are several organizations you may want to look into. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, for example, has a state fact sheet page (thenationalcampaign.org/resource…) and there may also be information in other NCPTP publications or from Planned Parenthood or the Guttmacher Institute regarding pregnancy trends and programs on the state level.


  4. Janna2 years ago

    A contributing factor to the Hispanic teen birth rate could be the teen mother’s desire to create an ‘anchor baby’ — instant US citizenship conferred — if she, herself, is not ALREADY an ‘anchor baby’.

  5. john2 years ago

    You need to overlay abortions rates by year and category to get the full picture. With 56 million a year in the US its a major impact to facts.

    1. Eileen Patten2 years ago

      Hi John,

      I think your 56 million figure may be referring to the number of abortions since Roe v. Wade not the number of abortions in the past year. The Guttmacher Institute cites a figure of 53 million legal abortions from 1973 to 2011 (guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_a…). Note that this is among all women ages 15-44, not just teens.

      The abortion rate among females ages 15-19 has fallen over roughly the same time period as the pregnancy and birth rates—from 43.5 per 1,000 teens in 1988 to 16.3 in 2009.

      To see a long-term trend on teen abortion rates, see this CDC table, which has rates going back to 1976: cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db1…


    2. Leslie2 years ago

      What “full picture” do you get? “…a major impact to facts.” What does that mean?

      1. Alana2 years ago

        The article focuses on birth rates, not pregnancy rates. They are two different things.
        Assuming that the number of births in the Hispanic community can be attributed to one factor (attempting to gain citizenship) may not be accurate. Traditional Hispanic familial structure is strong and beliefs about termination can be influenced by religious beliefs and familial support for the birth mom and baby. If these are the questions one wants answered, we need a study asking the reasons for choosing to become pregnant, whether to terminate, and factor in whether the mother and father are documented or not.

        1. Eileen Patten2 years ago

          Hi Alana,

          You’re right — the focus of this post is on birth rates and that’s the only number shown by race and ethnicity in the post. Here’s what the numbers look for pregnancy and abortion by race and ethnicity.

          In 2009, the pregnancy rate for Hispanic teens (100.1 per 1,000) was higher than among non-Hispanic white teens (42.6) but lower than that among non-Hispanic black teens (113.7).

          However, the abortion rate among Hispanic teens was lower than among black teens (17.5 vs. 40.3). The abortion rate among white teens is 9.6 per 1,000. Taken as a share of all pregnancies, Hispanic teens are less likely than other groups to end their pregnancies in abortion. About 17% of Hispanic teen pregnancies end in abortion, compared with 23% of white teen pregnancies and 35% of black teen pregnancies.

          (Source is CDC published table: cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db1…)

          To get at the issue of Hispanic beliefs about abortion, we do find that Hispanics overall (51%) are more likely than the general public (41%) to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, though younger Hispanics ages 18-29 (43%) are less disapproving than older Hispanics (and they are in line with young people of all races and ethnicity — 43% of all adults ages 18-29 say abortion should be illegal). But note that this gets more at overall attitudes about the legality of abortion and not necessarily personal views about getting an abortion (we don’t have data on the latter). See this report for more detail on Hispanics’ view of abortion: pewhispanic.org/2012/04/04/v-pol….