Research Watch: Racial Differences in Teen Mothers

Diana Zuckerman
October 1, 1998

U.S. General Accounting Office


(202) 512-6061

Pregnancy rates among unmarried teens are slowly decreasing in the U.S., but remain much higher than in other countries. This report prepared for Congress concluded that the trends and traits of teen mothers are substantially different for whites compared to blacks and Hispanics.

The report, which reviews data from national government studies, found that approximately 10 percent of Hispanic and black teenage girls had babies in 1995, more than double the four percent for white teens. Although the overall teen pregnancy rate is 41 percent lower today than it was in the late 1950s, only 22 percent of today’s teen mothers are married, compared to 86 percent in 1957. Nearly half of teenage mothers are white.

Geography matters: teen birth rates are highest in the South and Southwest and much lower in the Northern states (with the exceptions of Oregon, Washington, and Michigan). Geographic difference reflect racial differences; the areas with the highest rates tend to have more blacks and Hispanics.

Despite public perceptions that teen pregnancy is an urban problem, the report found that teen pregnancy is highest in rural areas. However, black teens had higher rates in urban areas than in rural areas.

Social class is not related to teen pregnancy for white girls, but it is for Hispanic and black girls. Teen pregnancy is much more likely among poor blacks and Hispanics than those with higher socioeconomic status.

Teen pregnancy is not necessarily related to other behavior problems. The report found that pregnant teens were not more likely to use drugs than were other teens. Smoking was a substantial problem for white teen mothers, 28 percent of whom reported smoking during their pregnancy, compared to only five percent of black and Hispanic teen mothers.

Teen mothers tended to have less involvement with school and lower standardized test scores. Although 64 percent of the teen mothers completed high school, this is much lower than the 90 percent of all teenage girls. However, dropping out of high school is not associated with pregnancy for black teenage girls.

This report is valuable because it is based on very large national samples, including birth certificate data, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and the National Survey of Family Growth. Advocates will find it especially useful because it was prepared for Congress and will attract the attention of policy makers, unlike most published journal articles. The inevitable shortcoming is that these data are usually at least three years old by the time they are analyzed.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Racial Differences in Teen Mothers." Research Watch review of Teen Mothers: Selected Socio-Demographic Characteristics And Risk Factors. Youth Today, October 1998, p. 6.

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