The New Geography of Teen Mothers

A look at why birth rates vary so dramatically across states.

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Reuters

This week, we've been exploring the inequality of access to last-resort birth prevention measures. We know that teen birth rates in this country are still far too high, with 34.2 out of every 1,000 teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 becoming mothers. Nonetheless, states are continuing to restrict abortion, and easy access to emergency contraception is still a matter of debate.

Today, we turn to state-level data on the rates of teen births. The Martin Prosperity Institute's Zara Matheson charts the patterns for teen birth to gain insight to who, and where, stands to benefit or lose the most by increased access to abortions as well as emergency contraception.

The first map plots the overall teen birth rate from ages 15 to 19. The "teen birth belt," so to speak, in the Sun Belt runs from New Mexico through Texas and Oklahoma to Arkansas and Mississippi, which all have teen birth rates in excess of 50 births per 1,000 teenage women. Conversely, the lowest rates of teen birth are in the Northeast. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut have rates of less than 20 births per 1,000 teenage women.

The second map looks at teen birth rates for 18 and 19-year-olds. A similar teen birth belt appears again, stretching from Mississippi to Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. The states with the highest rates among this group are clustered in the South, in Arkansas (91.4 births per 1,000 in population), Mississippi (88.7), Texas (86.5), New Mexico (86.4), and Oklahoma (83.8). New England states have relatively low rates. Massachusetts had 27.4 births per 1,000 in population, the lowest rate, followed by New Hampshire (29.2), Vermont (30.5), Rhode Island (31.6), and Connecticut (34.5).

The same pattern appears in rates among the 15 to 17-year-old cohort. Although Washington, D.C., tops the list with 35.7 per 1,000, many of the highest rates again are in the Sun Belt. Mississippi tops the list here as well, with a rate of 30.6 per 1,000. Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico all have high rates as well. The lowest rates are again in the Northeast and New England, as well as in the upper Midwest in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The last map charts the pattern for the youngest group, 10 to 14-year-olds. Keep in mind that the rates among these young teens are very low compared to other teens, as well as the adult female population as a whole. Nonetheless, there is still variation across states. Mississippi has the highest rate among this group, but even that is 1.1 birth per 1,000 people. Once again, we see the highest concentration of teen birth rates in the Sun Belt, running from South Carolina to Alabama and through Texas and New Mexico.

The big takeaway from this data: The highest teen birth rates are very geographically concentrated, especially in a handful of Sun Belt states, which indicates that certain geographic characteristics may influence such rates.

So what are the economic, demographic, and cultural factors that are associated with state-by-state variation in teen birth rates? To get at this, Charlotta Mellander of MPI ran a correlation analysis between the teen birth rate and a range of key state demographic and economic variables. She ran the analysis for teen births overall (ages 15 to 19) as well as for teens in the three individual age groups. It's worth pointing out that the rates of teen birth for these various age groups are closely associated with one another (with correlations of around .9). Because of this, we report the correlations for all teen births below. As usual, remember that correlation does not equal causation and other factors we have not accounted or controlled for may come into play. (Please forgive the double negatives in this analysis. A negative association means a connection to low teen birth rates, a positive thing.)

Social and religious conservatives often invoke religion in their crusades against teen sex and teen pregnancy. But Mellander's analysis finds a substantial positive correlation between the teen birth rate and the share of state residents who say they are "very religious" (.65). Despite the moralizing, the teen birth rate is actually higher in more religious states. This may be because other options, such as abortion, are more restricted in these states (abortion rates are negatively correlated with teen birth rates as well, -.41).

Social and religious conservatives also talk a lot about America's decaying moral fabric, blaming teen pregnancy on hedonistic, pleasure seeking, out-of-control kids. Here again Mellander's analysis turns up a curious pattern. The teen birth rate is lower in states with more binge drinking and marijuana use: it is negatively associated with binge drinking (-.36) and with marijuana use (-4). By no means are we condoning either, but the data shows that states where this is more prevalent have lower rates of teen births.

We can speculate on a state's overall posture on birth control by looking at the rate of abortion providers, which varies widely across states. Mellander's analysis finds a clear association between access to abortion providers in a state and teen birth rates (with a negative correlation of -.52 between the two).

The teen birth rate also hews closely to America's red-blue divide. Teen birth rates tend to be higher in red states, as the teen birth rate is positively associated with the share of votes cast for Mitt Romney (.42) and negatively correlated with Barack Obama votes (-.42). This may also be related to the pro-life view that is common among conservatives.

The teen birth rate turns on socio-economic class. It is lower in more affluent states, as it is negatively correlated with both income (-.53) and wages (-.35). The teen birth rate is also lower in more educated states (with a negative correlation to the share of adults that are college grads, -.54). Conversely, the teen birth rate is higher in more working-class states (with a negative correlation of -.36). The teen birth rate is also higher in states with greater poverty and economic disadvantage, as it is positively associated with the state poverty rate (with a correlation of .72). This may also turn on access to abortion providers. There is a close positive correlation between abortion providers per person and the share of college grads (.67) as well as the creative class share of the workforce (.47) and a substantial negative one between it and the working class share (-.70). So teens who might prefer to have an abortion over giving birth may have a difficult time getting access to providers in these states.

A recent piece at The Atlantic recognized this connection between class and teen mothers. The authors write:

One needs to look no further than the enormous geographic disparities in teen birth rates to suspect that something other than the adolescent brain is at fault. Why would teens in Mississippi or New Mexico have so much more trouble controlling their impulses than their peers in New York or New Hampshire? ... An alternative view -- the one we favor -- is that teen childbearing is a symptom of living a life full of obstacles. Facing limited education and job prospects, as well as a slim chance of finding a suitable man to marry, some low-income girls simply ask, "Why not have a baby now?"

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Despite the good news overall that teen birth rates are declining, it is clear from the data that too many teenagers are still having children. There is also huge variation across states in the teen birth rate. Our maps identify a clear teen birth belt across the Sun Belt. Despite all the hectoring and moralizing, teen births are higher in red states and more religious states, as well as those with more working class economies and higher levels of poverty and economic disadvantage. Teen birth rates are lower in more economically advantaged, more affluent, more educated, and more politically liberal states.

Our analysis cannot tell us the precise impact that Plan B would have on teen birth rates. But we do know that access to abortion providers makes a big difference. Given the rate of teen birth among 15 to 17-year-olds, it makes little sense to restrict these teens access to anything that might lower these rates, including emergency contraception and abortion.

All maps by MPI's Zara Matheson.

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