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Hailing Mothers Who Aren't

May 10, 1998

Sure, bring on the flowers, candy and cards today. But as we honor mothers, kudos also are in order for a big crop of mothers who aren't. Not yet, anyway.

In California and nationally, the rate of teen births has dropped steadily since 1991. This is very good news, especially after years of steady increase.

The consequences of teen parenthood touch the mother, her child and all of us. For teenage girls, motherhood means that dreams of completing their education or launching a career are often deferred or dashed. Children born to unwed teens, as most teen mothers are are, are more likely to grow up poor, drop out of school, go to prison or end up on welfare. Taxpayers--all of us--pay that steep tab. In California alone, the state and federal governments pay out an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion each year to families begun by teenage mothers. The recent decline in the rate of births to teens should benefit us all not just in lower public subsidies but in redeemed lives and brighter futures.

Nationally, the teen birth rate fell 8% between 1991 and 1995. In California, the birth rate for mothers between 15 and 19 fell 9% from 1995 to 1996 alone; this was the fifth straight year of decline and the largest single-year drop in 25 years. The decline in teen births appeared across the state and in each major ethnic and racial group. The rate of black teenage parenthood dropped 21% since 1991 and is now at the lowest level ever reported.

Even with this good news, some 65,000 California teens will observe their first Mothers Day this year--there is a birth to a teen almost every eight minutes. That's still far too many children having babies.

But the trend is moving in the right direction. As journalist Melissa Ludtke noted in her recent book on unmarried motherhood in America, there were fewer teenage mothers in 1995 than in 1956.

Who should get the credit for these happy developments? Experts point to several factors including abstinence education, wider distribution and use of contraception, fear of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and community outreach programs. No single approach stands out, but perhaps teen girls themselves deserve the most credit--those who decided that Mothers Day cards and flowers can wait.

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