Between 1991 and 1998 the rates of both teen pregnancies and births fell across the nation: among teenagers ages 15-19, the birth rate dropped from 62 to 52 per 1,000 youth, a decline of 12 percent. In Wisconsin the news was even better by 1997: there was a statewide drop in the birth rate from 44 to 35 per 1,000 teenagers ages 15-19, a decline of over 14 percent. (See Table 1.) Although the overall rate of adolescent pregnancy in Wisconsin is among the lowest in the nation, some troubling facts remain. As new policies affecting Wisconsin’s efforts to prevent adolescent pregnancies and childbearing are currently being developed through the Brighter Futures Initiative, these facts should directly affect how the state’s resources will be allocated.
First, over the last 30 years the continual flux in the rates of pregnancy and births to teenagers should caution against complacency about having finally “fixed” the problem. For example, the number of births to women under age 20 in Wisconsin peaked in 1975, but today the number of teen births is still higher than 1970. Second, the proportion of teenagers under 17 who have children is increasing. Third, the proportion of births to teenagers who are unmarried continues to rise steadily.5 Finally, despite the general decline in teen births since 1991, rates of pregnancy and childbearing among certain groups of young women in Wisconsin have not matched the general downward trend:
- Rates of pregnancy and childbearing among girls under 15 have remained steady and even begun to increase slightly;
- Rates of pregnancy and childbearing among Hispanic and Southeast Asian teenagers are significantly higher than statewide averages;
- Though rates of pregnancy and childbearing have come down among teenagers in Milwaukee, the city still ranks among those cities with the highest incidence of teen births;
These worrisome exceptions to the positive trends in Wisconsin require targeted approaches to prevention among those teenagers at highest risk of early conception and illegitimate childbearing.