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Troubling Boom in Babies

Poverty and boredom in the Central Valley are pushing teen birthrates far above norms, further testing an economically fragile region.

May 28, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

PARLIER, Calif. — Patty Rodriguez was hardly prepared for the consequences when she began having sex. Her older boyfriend had her convinced that nothing would happen. Besides, many of her Parlier High School girlfriends were sexually active and they hadn't gotten pregnant.

But now she tends to her 1-year-old son, Guillermo, in the brightly painted day care center, which opened about six months ago for student mothers like her. Thirteen other teen moms also use the facility in a small housing tract surrounded by fields of onions, grapes, tomatoes, cotton, peaches and citrus trees.

"It's such a small community, and there's nothing actually to do," Rodriguez said, musing on why she and so many other young girls in the Central Valley town of 12,000 become sexually active and pregnant. "Everyone knows everyone, and I guess you can say they get comfortable with each other."

The small farming towns such as Parlier, Earlimart, Porterville and Visalia that dot California's San Joaquin Valley are among the world's most productive agricultural communities.

But in these towns and more populous cities like Fresno and Madera, teenage mothers are bearing fruit of a different sort at an alarming rate.

The birthrates among teenagers in California's great rural swath are nearly double the state and national averages, and in some instances they surpass those of poor countries such as Namibia, Haiti and Cambodia, according to recent studies.

The phenomenon is emerging as a key issue in this economically fragile region, rivaling air quality and transportation as major concerns, costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year and leaving generations of families in poverty.

The region's mix of economic, demographic, cultural and geographic factors could not be better designed to result in teenage pregnancy, say experts.

Immigrant families work long hours for low wages in fields and packing houses. Young people have few recreational or work opportunities compared with their urban counterparts. An absence of rural public transportation further isolates them. Public and private social services, including birth-control programs, are underdeveloped.

The San Joaquin Valley also has the highest levels of poverty in the state, the lowest high school graduation rates and the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases, all of which, researchers say, are linked to higher birthrates.

"From my experience, teens are not going to postpone giving birth if there is nothing else for them to do," said Carmen Nevarez, medical director of the Berkeley-based Public Health Institute, which issued a study tracking birthrates in legislative districts and corresponding costs to taxpayers. "If it's between having a baby and working in a packing plant, motherhood sounds pretty good to these girls."

At a time when overall teen births in California and the nation are at historic lows, the numbers in the San Joaquin Valley offer a dramatic counterpoint.

The report from Public Health Institute, a nonprofit health policy research group, found that in state Sen. Dean Florez's 16th District, which encompasses large parts of Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties, the 2000 birthrate for teenage mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 was 94.8 births per 1,000, compared with the state and national rate of 48.5 per 1,000.

That rate also was significantly higher than in some Southern states with traditionally high birthrates such as Texas (with a 2001 teen birthrate of 68.5 per 1,000) and Mississippi (with a rate of 66.7 per 1,000).

Although more recent international data is not available, the teen birthrate in Namibia and Haiti in 1995 was 81 per 1,000, and in Cambodia, 71 per 1,000.

The Public Health Institute report put the annual costs -- including lost income, productivity and medical care -- of teen births in California at $3.3 billion and in Florez's district at $192 million.

Florez (D-Shafter) calls teen child bearing the Central Valley's "dirty little secret" and said he has been working -- mostly in vain -- to get his legislative colleagues and the governor's office to recognize the situation as a crisis. He is organizing a meeting on the issue in July and is working on legislation to increase sex education courses for high school students. He also wants to change the state's per capita-based family planning budget so that more dollars will flow into sparsely populated rural areas with high teen birthrates.

"You'd think the number one commodity in the Central Valley is cotton or tomatoes, but unfortunately it's teen pregnancy," said Florez. "We're so focused on economic development issues in the Valley, but as much money as we raise for the state, it goes out the back door when it comes to the amount of teen pregnancy."


California 99 runs like a vein through the broad, flat Central Valley, and along its route are hamlets such as Selma, Lindsay, Cutler, Farmersville and Firebaugh, where teen birthrates run significantly higher than the state average.

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