Youth Today: Keep on Tithing

By Karen Pittman, March 1999

55. 13. 7. A lock combination? A football play? No. These are the birth rates per 1,000 15- to 19-year-olds per the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands, brought to us by D.C.-based Advocates for Youth and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Forty public health researchers and two teenage journalists formed a study tour that visited three countries (France was also included) to explore the sociological, cultural and community factors that influence adolescent sexual behaviors.

The approach was new, but the findings are not. The Alan Guttmacher Institute has been making this case since the mid-seventies: Mentioning it in 11 Million Teenagers in 1976; Charting it in Teenage Pregnancy: The Problem that Hasn’t Gone Away in 1981; writing a book about it (Teenage Pregnancy in Industrialized Countries) in 1986.

The lessons are the same. These and other countries separate values from responsible sexual behavior. (Abstinence is a value, not a contraceptive choice for the sexually active.) They separate church from state, making sure public policies are driven by scientific research on effective pregnancy reduction strategies. They respect youth rights, expect young people to act responsibly and provide them with affordable, non-threatening access to information and services.

Unfortunately, these lessons are now more likely to fall on deaf ears. Conservatives and liberals jockey to take credit for the steady decline in birth rates since 1991, but U.S. pregnancy and birth rates are still at least twice as high as those of other industrialized countries.

What should be done? I was a staunch advocate for dulling the sharp edges of the pregnancy prevention campaigns when I ran the Children’s Defense Fund’s campaign a decade ago. Chanting “problem-free isn’t fully prepared,” I pushed for broader youth development language that acknowledged the overlap in prevention strategies and signaled the need to couple these strategies with investments in preparation and opportunities for youth. Now I want those edges sharpened on both sides.

I want the national and local pregnancy prevention campaigns and coalitions to forge the link between prevention, preparation and promotion. I want the language and strategies for building teens’ capacity (e.g., information and services) and motivation (e.g., educational and economic supports and opportunities) to get equal billing. I want it clear that a choice between a 15-year-old unskilled dropout who delays parenthood until 21 (because of an all-out effort to provide reproductive health services and counseling) and a 21-year-old employed high school graduate whose first child was born at 15 (but who was able to complete school because of all-out efforts to provide child care, educational supports and job counseling) is no life-enhancing choice at all.

I want youth workers and health workers trained and comfortable talking to teens about sex, drugs, violence, college, jobs and community service. I want every single-issue campaign to tithe time to the larger messages so that people — policy makers, parents and practitioners — learn to see these multiple messages as different views of the same picture. The larger messages? Problems (sex, drugs, violence) can be addressed, in the short term, with the same mix of strategies (building skills, relationships, expectations, connections and providing targeted information and services). In the long run, however, problems dissipate (or are dealt with more easily) only when young people have the broader supports and opportunities they need to prepare and participate in mainstream society.

It is discouraging to have lived through three major national campaigns to prevent teenage pregnancy and still not be ready for retirement. Youth workers have to pick up their banners again on this issue, to argue for more than basketball and leadership training.

Problem-free isn’t fully prepared. But full preparation and participation require access to information and services that can reduce problems. Without constant, aggressive vigilance, many young people in this country will be denied access to the basic information, guidance and services that could help them make good decisions about sex, contraceptives, pregnancy and marriage.
Pittman, K. (1999, March). "Keep on Tithing." Washington, DC: The Forum for Youth Investment. A version of this article appears in Youth Today.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.

Publishing Date: 
March 1, 1999
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