Race and Teenage Pregnancy

Burke C. Dabney, American Renaissance, March 2002

The media, teachers and public health officials have devoted enormous attention in recent years to the “teen pregnancy crisis.” But is there a crisis? And if so, for whom? It is a mistake to treat all teenage child births the same. A child born to a married 19-year-old has very different prospects from one born to an unmarried 14-year-old. Also, teenage motherhood follows the racial and ethnic patterns that pervade our society. Current anti-pregnancy campaigns largely ignore important distinctions of this kind, and are directed indiscriminately at all American teenagers. They therefore miss many of their intended targets and have the effect of discouraging childbirth among whites, who are the only group that is losing demographic ground while all others gain.

As the most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics show, teenage motherhood is disproportionately black and Hispanic, with these two minority groups accounting for more than half of all teenage births. Although whites (what the census bureau calls “non-Hispanic whites”) are 60.9 percent of the American population age 17 and younger, in 1999 whites accounted for just 44.3 percent — a minority — of births to females 19 and younger. Tables 1 and 2 show the percentages for blacks and Hispanics. Non-white teenagers are more than twice as likely as whites to have children, and more than one in five babies (20.8 percent) born to American blacks in 1999 were born to teenage mothers. Any health program or education project aimed at reducing teenage births will therefore yield greater results if it targets blacks and Hispanics.

Table 1.
Under Eighteen
2000 US Population 17 or younger
Race Number Percent
White 44.0 60.9
Black 11.4 15.8
Hispanic 12.4 17.2
Other 4.5 6.2
Table 2.
Teenage Mothers
1999 births to females age 19 or younger
Race Number Percent
White 214,971 44.3
Black 122,175 25.2
Hispanic 127,402 26.2
Other 20,556 4.2

What the authorities persist in calling a crisis of teenage pregnancy is in fact a crisis — or absence — of marriage. Teenage birth rates have not gone up in the past several decades; they have gone down. The teenage birth rate in 1999 of 49 per 1,000 teenage girls is only 60 percent of the 1950 rate of 82 per 1,000 teenage girls. The reason the 1950 rate was not a crisis is that most of those teenage mothers were married, whereas today they are not. In 1950, only about 13 percent of births to women in the 15-19 age group were out of wedlock, whereas the figure was 79 percent in 1999. What this means is that teenage birth rates declined substantially in the past 50 years, but marriage virtually disappeared. Indeed, we find that in 1950 a 14-year-old mother was more likely to be married than is a 19-year-old mother today.

This is due in part to the fact that Americans now marry later than they used to; the median age at first marriage has risen by more than four years since 1950. Fifty years ago, about half of American women who were going to marry had done so by age 21, and that figure remained essentially the same until 1970. By 2000, the median age had crept up to 24.5 (see Table 3). This increase in the age at first marriage has been accompanied by sharp drops in the percentages of younger women who are married (see Table 4). The age group 20-24 is particularly striking, with 70 percent of women married by that age in 1950 but only 27 percent in 1995. For females aged 15-19, 16.7 percent were married in 1950, compared to only 3.2 percent in 1995 — an 80 percent drop.

Table 3.
Marrying Later
Estimated median age at first marriage for American women.
Year Age at

Marriage

1950 20.3
1955 20.2
1960 20.3
1965 20.6
1970 20.8
1975 21.1
1980 22.0
1985 23.3
1990 23.9
1995 24.5
Table 4.
Marrying Less
Percentage of US females who were married.
Age 1950 1995
15-19 16.7 3.2
20-24 69.5 27.0
25-29 86.2 52.8
Table 5.
Teenage Mothers and Marriage
Percentages of mothers of various ages who where unmarried, in 1950 and 1999.
Mother’s Age 1950 1999
18-19 10.1 73.9
15-17 22.6 87.6
14 & under 63.7 96.4

Whether teenage motherhood per se constitutes a crisis, defining all births to mothers under age 20 as social pathology misses important differences between older teenagers (18 and 19) and minor girls 17 and younger. An 18-or 19-year-old girl is at least a legal adult who can sign a lease or open a bank account. She is more likely to have finished high school, and is eligible for full-time employment unconstrained by child labor laws.

Table 6.
Unwed Teenage Mothers, 1998
Birthrate per 1,000 unmarried women by Race and Age.
15-17 18-19
Hispanic 53.0 107.8
Black 56.5 123.5
White 15.6 42.8
US 27.0 64.5
Percentages of births at various ages that are illegitimate.
Under 15 15-17 18-19
Hisp. 92.9 81.1 67.3
Black 99.5 98.3 93.7
White 95.5 84.5 67.5
US 96.4 87.6 73.9

At the same time, marriage, although still the exception, is more common among older teenage mothers (second part of Table 6), with mothers in the 18-19 group six times more likely to be married than mothers 15 and under. More than 30 percent of births to Hispanic and white females 18-19 are to married women, compared to single-digit percentages for those 15 and under.

For blacks, the likelihood of marriage increases only slightly for older teenage mothers. This simply reflects the general disappearance of marriage for blacks of all ages. In 1999, 69 percent of all births to blacks were to single women. This rate of illegitimacy for the entire black population is higher than the illegitimacy rate for 18 — and 19-year-old whites and Hispanics.

Even if it is misleading to include married women 18 and older in statistics about the “teen pregnancy crisis,” very young teenagers (those 15 and under) are almost certainly ill-prepared for motherhood. They are just girls, mostly still in middle school. The overwhelming majority are unmarried (indeed, most states prohibit marriage before age 16), and young teenagers are prohibited by law from full-time employment. These very young mothers are a real public concern. Their numbers are relatively few (31,950 births to girls 15 and younger in 1999 out of a total of nearly four million births), but “children having children” is the disturbing image that drives anti-pregnancy campaigns.

Table 7.
Teenage Motherhood by Age
1999 births to females age 18-19
Race Number % of Total
White 149,403 47.8
Black 73,434 23.5
Hispanic 76,448 24.4
Other 13,117 4.2
Younger Teenage Mothers
1999 births to females age 17 and under.
Race Number % of Total
White 65,658 38.0
Black 48,741 28.2
Hispanic 51,054 29.6
Other 7,279 4.2
Youngest Teenage Mothers
1999 births to females age 15 and under.
Race Number % of Total
White 9,011 28.2
Black 12,588 39.4
Hispanic 10,013 31.3
Other 338 1.1

An analysis of teenage motherhood by age reveals striking racial differences (Table 7). Nearly 70 percent of white teenage mothers are 18 or 19, and whites account for just 28 percent of births to girls 15 and under. In 1999, “only” 9,011 births were to white girls of that age group. Meanwhile, nearly 40 percent of births to girls 15 and under were to black mothers, while Hispanics accounted for 31.3 percent of 15-and-under births. This means that although the actual number of births is relatively low, a black girl 15 or younger is 5.4 times more likely to have a child than a white girl of that age group, and young teenage Hispanics are 3.9 times more likely. The majority of teenage mothers of all ages are non-white, and this is overwhelmingly true for the youngest mothers. In 1999 blacks and Hispanics accounted for no fewer than 71 percent of births to girls 15 and under.

Interestingly, the overall teenage illegitimacy rate is actually slightly lower for Hispanics than for whites (67.3 percent v. 67.5 percent for 18 — and 19-year-olds — see lower part of Table 6). However, when illegitimacy is expressed in terms of the rate of unwed births to unmarried teenagers, Hispanics are more than twice as likely as whites to have illegitimate children (107.8 per thousand 18 — and 19-year-olds as opposed to 42.8 — see upper part of Table 6).

To explain this odd finding in round numbers, imagine that for every 1,000 white 18 — and 19-year-olds there were 63 births, 43 of which were illegitimate. For Hispanics, there were 159 births, 108 of which were illegitimate. The illegitimacy rates are very similar, but at 108 illegitimate births to teenagers, Hispanic teenagers are two-and-a-half times more likely to have illegitimate births than are white teenagers, for whom the illegitimacy rate is 43 per thousand teenagers. For that matter, Hispanic teenagers are also two-and-a-half times more likely than whites to have legitimate children. Hispanics simply show far higher fertility, both for legitimate and illegitimate babies, during the teenage years.

Table 8.
Teenager Birth
Rates, 1999
Births per 1,000 females in various age groups by race.
15-17 18-19 15-19
Hisp. 61.3 139.4 93.4
Black 53.7 126.8 83.7
White 17.1 58.9 34.0
US 28.7 80.3 49.6

To summarize:

  • While blacks and Hispanics account for fewer than 30 percent of the teenage population, they account for more than 50 percent of births to teenagers.
  • These same minorities account for 58 percent of births to minors (girls 17 and younger) and 71 percent of the most “at risk” births, to girls 15 and younger.
  • The overwhelming majority of teenage mothers are unmarried. By ages 18 and 19, some 32 percent of white and Hispanic teenage mothers are married, but only about six percent of blacks are, reflecting the virtual disappearance of marriage for blacks of all ages.
  • Teenage motherhood is relatively uncommon among whites, with births to minors accounting for fewer than 3 percent of all white births. Among the youngest teenage mothers (15 and younger) there were 9,011 births to whites in 1999.
Table 9.
Teenagers and Fertility
Teenager birthrates per 1,000 and

total fertility for certain countries.

Birth rate Total Fertility
United States 64 2.0
New Zealand 35 1.9
Britain 33 1.7
Canada 27 1.5
Australia 21 1.7
Germany 13 1.3
Sweden 13 1.5
Spain 12 1.2
France 9 1.7
Italy 9 1.2
Japan 4 1.4

This is not, however, the picture of teenage motherhood suggested by the media and by activist groups, which routinely ignore racial differences. On Nov. 28, 2001, the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) — the research affiliate of Planned Parenthood — released a study comparing teenage birth rates in the United States with rates in Canada, Great Britain, France and Sweden. Predictably, AGI concluded that these nations had lower teenage birth rates because of “social expectations . . . that teenage partners should use contraceptives to avoid pregnancy and to prevent STDs.” AGI’s press release announcing the study did not even mention race, although none of the other nations has large black or Hispanic populations. The “executive summary” of the study refers to race only to point out that “the birthrate among non-Hispanic white teenagers (36 per 1,000) is higher than overall rates in the other study countries.” So it is, but 36 per 1,000 is very close to 33 and 35 for Britain and New Zealand, and not that different from Canada’s 27 (Table 9). The Guttmacher Institute cannot bring itself to point out that it is blacks and Hispanics who raise the overall US rate to 64 per 1,000 — nearly twice the rate of the next highest country, New Zealand — and that without high non-white teenage pregnancy rates, there would be little drama in the study at all. It is silly to claim that the international differences are due to “social expectations” about contraception when the main reasons are racial.

At the same time, as Table 9 suggests, populations do not generally show high overall fertility rates without a relatively high rate of teenage motherhood — as was true of the United States during the Baby Boom. Demographers point out that fertility delayed is fertility denied. In modern societies with birth control, unless some substantial number of women begin having children before age 20, fertility is likely to drop below replacement level.

Table 9 shows that while the US has higher teenage birth rates than other industrialized countries, it is also the only one that has a total fertility rate that is near replacement level. Indeed, there seems to be an almost direct correlation between teenage birthrates and a nation’s overall fertility. Disastrously low fertility rates in countries like Japan, Spain and Italy are cause for great concern, as the prospect of a shrinking, aging population threatens to bankrupt old-age pension systems and disrupt society. High teenage birthrates and higher overall fertility mean the US does not face the same problems, but these high rates are due exclusively to high non-white fertility.

Young whites are being bombarded with scare-propaganda about teenage pregnancy when, in fact, they are considerably less “at risk” for this outcome than minority children. This propaganda may foster a general anti-natal mentality among whites, and an aversion to having children that persists beyond the teenage years, and contributes to sub-replacement fertility for whites. For while overall American fertility rates are the highest in the advanced industrialized nations, white fertility is considerably lower (Table 10).

Table 10.
US Fertility, 1999
Average lifetime births per woman, based

on current age-specific fertility rates.

Hispanic 2.99
Black 2.21
White 1.85
Table 11.
Age at First Birth
Median age of mother at time of birth of

first child.

1960 1997
White 22.0 25.3
Black 19.6 21.5

There is yet another racial difference in fertility patterns. In America, the decline in births to teenage mothers has been accompanied by an increase in the median age of first child-bearing (Table 11), but the increase has not been the same for blacks and whites. Early childbearing has been traditional for blacks: In 1960, half of all black mothers had their first child when they were teenagers, while the median age for whites was 22. The typical first-time white mother in 1960 was 2.4 years older than her black counterpart, but by 1997 that gap had increased to 3.8 years. The message to defer — and in some cases deny — childbearing has had a greater impact on whites than on blacks. By the time the typical white woman has her first child, the typical black woman’s first child is nearly four years old. This delay in childbearing lowers white fertility, while it stretches out the span of years between white generations, further contributing to population decline.

White women would have to give birth to 13.5 percent more babies every year in order for the white population just to maintain its current size. Meanwhile, Hispanic and black fertility rates are 62 and 20 percent higher than the white rate, and ensure growing populations while the white population declines. One might well wonder about indiscriminate anti-natalist propaganda when some groups in the country are already below replacement-level fertility. The “success” of such propaganda only accelerates the decline of the white population. If crusaders against teenage motherhood were serious, they would concentrate on the black and Hispanic girls who account for more than half of teenage births. Targeting whites as part of a general campaign is yet another form of racial suicide. We should encourage whites to have children within marriage; instead they are encouraged only to use contraceptives, whether married or single.

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