According to reports, researchers looked at reading scores of more than 12,000 girls enrolled in Philadelphia public schools and compared those scores to any pregnancies and subsequent births from the cohort. They found that girls with lower reading skills were 2.5 times more likely to give birth as a teen than those girls with average reading skills. Within the cohort, African-American girls and Latinas were more likely to have below average reading skills than their white counterparts and were also more likely to have given birth.
The study doesn’t conclude that low literacy rates are the main predictor of teen pregnancy, but they do help flush out some of the other predictors such as poverty, lack of access to birth control and abstinence-only sex education. The study’s authors put it this way. “It is quite possible that adolescent girls who experience a daily sense of rejection in the classroom might feel as though they have little chance of achievement later on in life,” said Rosemary Frasso, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. “Our findings underscore the role of literacy as its own social risk factor throughout the life-course.”
Linking literacy with self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment and/or rejection helps us get to the larger, thornier problem when dealing with teen pregnancy and that is the extent to which our cultural devaluation of women and girls drives these rates. While teen pregnancy rates have hit an all-time low among all races and ethnicities, the disparities are still very real and very troubling. Latinos still have the highest numbers of teen births with 55.7 births of every 1,000 babies born to a teen girl. African-American teenage girls are not too far behind with 51.5 births for every 1,000 births.
That means that in order to get serious about addressing teen pregnancy rates we need to get serious about addressing poverty and entrenched, structural racial bias that perpetuates these cycles. It means we need to start talking about poverty and teenage pregnancy as public health issues, not simply “social ills.” And most of all, it means we need to get serious about eradicating those forces in our culture that devalue young women, especially young women of color because the evidence is clear: when we invest in young girls, entire communities benefit. The returns are exponential.
Photo from Ian Wilson via flickr.