The Drop Out Crisis and Teen Pregnancy

Graduation season is upon us, but the approximately 1.3 million high school students who dropped out this year won’t be hearing “Pomp and Circumstance.” These dropouts are disproportionately black and Hispanic, and overwhelmingly poor. Since failing to finish school contributes mightily to poverty and inequality in America, increasing high school graduation rates should be an urgent national priority.

Why do so many poor kids drop out? Some dwell on low expectations and a lack of motivation among kids who struggle to learn, get frustrated and eventually give up. But lately researchers have drawn attention to an under-appreciated reason that students drop out: pregnancy. Among dropouts, 30 percent of girls cite pregnancy or parenthood as a key reason they left school. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, only 51 percent of teen moms earn a high school diploma compared to 89 percent of female students who did not give birth as a teen. The picture is even worse for the youngest mothers: just 38 percent of teen girls who have a child before they turn 18 have a high school diploma. For these teens, the task of balancing their education and a baby proved impossible.

Focusing on curbing the teen pregnancy problem will most certainly put a dent in the number of school dropouts. While teen pregnancy often causes students to drop out, being engaged in school can reduce instances of teen pregnancy. Teens who stay in school and are academically involved are less likely to get pregnant than their peers who aren’t as engaged. In other words, dropping out also increases the chances that a teen will get pregnant.

Unplanned pregnancy and childbearing are also implicated in the failure of many young women to finish their college education. Research shows that 61 percent of women who have children in community college don’t finish their degree, and less than two percent of teen mothers who have a baby before age 18 get a college degree by age 30.

The nexus between getting pregnant and dropping out adds yet another example to the dismal catalog of social ills that stem from family breakdown and too-early childbearing. Within three years of having a child, about one-quarter of teen moms go on welfare. Children of teen mothers are more likely to suffer abuse, end up in prison, and drop out of high school. High school dropouts are also more likely to rely on welfare and have higher crime and incarceration rates.

While teen birth rates in the United States plummeted by 37 percent between 1991 and 2009, the dramatic decrease may have fed a premature sense of complacency about the issue. There was actually an uptick of teen pregnancies between 2005 and 2007, when the rate rose five percent. In any case, the teen pregnancy epidemic is far from over. In 2009, about 410,000 teen girls aged 15 to 19 gave birth with the majority being Hispanic or African-American. What’s more, America’s teen pregnancy rate is up to nine times higher than that of most developed nations.

Now some social analysts worry that funding for teen pregnancy prevention will be a casualty of budget-cutting fever in Washington. An especially frightening proposition given that teen pregnancy prevention is already dealing with a short stack. In 2010, Congress appropriated $110 million for evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs. Meanwhile, the U.S. spends, nationally, nearly $11 billion each year to remediate the social consequences of teen pregnancy.

Yet House Republicans tried to eliminate this modest $110 million investment for FY 2011.They also tried to cut funding entirely for Title X, which is instrumental in helping provide teens and low income women with contraceptives and reducing the number of unintended pregnancies, teen pregnancies, and abortions. If Republicans are really serious about reducing the deficit, they need to realize that investing in teen pregnancy prevention saves money over time and resist cutting this funding. Because of the overall decrease in teen pregnancy rates, taxpayers saved $8.4 billion in 2008 alone.

The school dropout crisis isn’t cheap either — if graduation rates don’t improve, dropouts will cost us $3 trillion over the next decade. Cutting funding for teen pregnancy prevention means more dropouts, which means losses in tax revenue and more spending on welfare, prison costs, and Medicaid, to name a few.

Progressives ought to “just say no” to GOP efforts to balance the budget on the backs of America’s most vulnerable families. In fact, we’ll save money over the long run by investing more in cost-effective teen pregnancy programs. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has a list of such successful prevention programs here. Investing in them will pay double dividends, reducing both teen pregnancy and mitigating its related ills – including the drop out crisis.

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