Opinion writer

Three years ago, candidates for mayor and the D.C. Council crisscrossed the city, telling voters how they would bring progress and prosperity to District residents. That same year, 73 D.C. infants died, including 51 who never reached their 30th day of life, according to city health department data.

What’s more, in 2010, 16 girls under the age of 15 gave birth. That was an improvement over 2009, when 26 children younger than 15 had babies. But, in election-year 2010, a total of 951 girls ages 15 to 19 had babies.

If candidates spoke about this crisis on the campaign trail, they must have been speaking under their breath.

This year’s candidates are no better. Six people aiming for a permanent at-large seat on the council are popping up at candidate forums to tout their ability to solve the city’s fundamental problems.

Still missing on the campaign trail is any serious discussion about the 879 girls who gave birth in 2011 and the large concentration of teen births in Wards 7 and 8, the city’s most impoverished wards.

In 2011 alone, 508 teen births were recorded in those two wards — home to Mayor Vincent Gray and council member Marion Barry, respectively.

But teen pregnancy isn’t just an election-year issue. It is, or should be, an issue for every elected official and city resident. The problem hits our quality of life and our wallets.

A one-way ticket to poverty” is the way Brenda Rhodes Miller, executive director of the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, once described the problem.

Teen pregnancy drives our welfare rolls and the rates of high-school dropouts and graduation.

Children who eventually end up abused, neglected, abandoned and living as wards of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency or the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services are more likely to have been born to teen mothers.

Some of us have been beating this drum for years. The consequences of teen pregnancy are enormous: shattered families, broken lives, disrupted classrooms, overwhelmed social services, crowded court dockets and more. I’ll keep beating the drum because we have the ability to do something. What’s missing is the will.

Many people ask: Are the District’s teen birth numbers above the national average because girls living east of the Anacostia River are having more sex? Research says that’s not it.

Teenage girls in Wards 7 and 8 are not having babies because they are more promiscuous than teenagers in, say, the more prosperous Ward 3, which recorded two teen births in 2010 and none in 2011. Teens in Wards 7 and 8 do, however, have something in common with teenage girls in Mississippi and other parts of the country where teen birth rates are higher than the national average: They all can be found near the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.

Researchers Melissa Kearney of the University of Maryland at College Park and Phillip Levine of Wellesley College published a study underscoring the fact that “girls living in lower socio-economic circumstances are more likely than their wealthier peers to become pregnant.”

Life lived in poverty is neither uplifting nor overflowing with meaning, they found. For some girls, a quiet despair takes over. And with that, an emptiness, which for some is filled by turning to motherhood.

Okay, you can debate that explanation. Or dismiss the study as just another excuse for bad behavior. Or you can use this column as one more reason to knock young male fathers and irresponsible parents. Blame teen pregnancy on the Great Society, liberalism, the ’60s, or President Obama (he’s blamed for everything else, anyway).

But what we should be talking about is the need to do something about babies having babies. Pregnancy prevention ought to be one of our top priorities. Teenage girls and boys, disadvantaged and well-off, should have access to sex education and contraception, abstinence counseling and the like.

And, as the researchers contend, “with improved economic opportunities, reduced poverty, and improved prospects for other adult outcomes, teen pregnancy would also decline.”

Which is why this election year, along with the budgeting taking place in the Wilson Building, is important.

Or shall we just keep talking past the problem?

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