Teen pregnancies stay stubbornly high in poor D.C. wards; low expectations are cited

Robert McCartney
Columnist January 29

It was sad and sobering to hear the teenage mothers and mothers-to-be from the District’s poorest neighborhoods discuss why so many in their communities get pregnant so young.

They said they and their friends don’t expect to go to college or have careers, so there’s less reason to delay having children. They said their part of the city east of the Anacostia River lacks restaurants, theaters and other entertainment, so young people are more likely to turn to sex as an alternative.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

They all agreed it’s different “uptown,” in the District’s better-off neighborhoods.

“ ‘Uptown’ . . . they probably don’t deal with that ‘having a baby’ type stuff. They’re more focused on education,” said one young participant in a new study of teen pregnancy in the District.

Said another, a pregnant high school student: “ ‘Uptown’ . . . they have . . . activities they can focus their mind more off of sex. I mean, everybody is going to think about sex. But I feel like they can focus their mind on something else.”

I heard the young women speak in July during small group interviews conducted for the report being released this week by the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Also participating were teenage boys and teens’ parents.

The study examines why the number of teen births has remained stubbornly high in wards 7 and 8 despite plummeting in the rest of the city since the late 1990s.

It’s a question well worth asking. Teen pregnancy, or “children having children,” is a root source of the cycle of poverty in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t encouraging. The study suggests that the only way to reduce teen pregnancy in such communities is to solve broader, persistent problems, such as unemployment, broken families, and especially the lack of education and other social services.

It isn’t enough to provide more sex instruction and improved access to contraception. The District did that starting in 1999 in a concerted campaign to reduce teen pregnancy, but the methods only worked “uptown.”

In wards 1 through 6, the total number of teen births has dropped by nearly half — from 710 in 1997 to 364 in 2011.

By contrast, in wards 7 and 8, the number rose over that period, from 473 to 508.

“A traditional teen pregnancy approach is too narrow” for the eastern wards, said Michael Perry, a District-based researcher who oversaw the study. “This is more about investing in community. It’s about jobs. It’s about addressing the root causes of poverty. It isn’t just about making contraception more available.”

The new report offers an interesting comparison with a similar study about the District, also conducted by Perry, in 1998.

Some things haven’t changed. Despite the city’s efforts, teens still don’t know as much as they should about contraception.

One girl said her acquaintances were reluctant to use birth control pills because “they know girls in Europe that are on birth control . . . [and it] makes them look so much older.” Boys often carry condoms because they think it enhances their reputation — but then neglect to use them.

Teens also continue to feel uncomfortable discussing sex with their parents. They’re still surrounded by sexual images and messages in music, movies and television — a reality that has intensified with the spread of social media.

But the study had new findings about the District’s poorest communities. Teens there realize that having a child early will interfere with ambitious plans, such as higher education or travel. But they figure they don’t have much of a future anyway.

A sense of resignation about their place in the world also plays a role.

Teens “do not believe preventing teen pregnancy is a priority for Wards 7 and 8,” the report says. “They feel the city as a whole does not care what happens to them.”

What to do? The report urges working harder to engage parents and to counter misinformation about contraception.

But the study says it also is necessary to “create more opportunities for youth” in poor neighborhoods and help teens “set higher expectations and goals.”

In other words, transform the economy and mind-set of wards 7 and 8.

Brenda Rhodes Miller, executive director of the DC Campaign, summed it up succinctly: “You’ve got to lift parents out of poverty before you can protect young people from all the ill effects that come with being poor in America.”

For my previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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