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).
But 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.
A 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.
Eileen Patten is a research analyst focusing on Hispanic, social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center.