Taxpayer bill for teen births $100M-plus for Stanislaus, Merced, San Joaquin, study says

May 22, 2008 

The teen birthrate has gone up in California after a 15-year decline, with some of the sharpest increases reported in the counties of the San Joaquin Valley.

The report released by the Public Health Institute says that each teen birth costs taxpayers $2,493 per year and the annual burden for taxpayers in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties combined exceeds $100 million.

At 37.8 births per 1,000 teens in 2006, a slight increase over the previous year, the state's teen birthrate still is lower than the nationwide average of 42 births per 1,000. But the number of births to teenage mothers increased more dramatically in some regions of the state, including the Central Valley, says the Public Health Institute study.

The nonprofit research group considered the birthrate change from 2004 to 2006, the most recent data available.

Merced County had 644 teen births in 2006 or 61 births per 1,000 teens, a 13 percent increase over 2004. San Joaquin County had 1,475 births or 56 per 1,000, a 7.6 percent increase, and Stanislaus had 1,013 teen births or 49 per 1,000, a 2 percent increase.

Merced had the ninth-highest teen birthrate among the state's 58 counties. San Joaquin was ranked 10th and Stanislaus 16th.

According to the study, the financial burden includes everything from medical care to public assistance, increased foster care and incarceration costs, and lost tax revenue based on the parents' lower earnings. The burden will grow heavier if teen births continue to rise, the authors said.

"It concerns us because the teen birthrates have gone up across the United States, and now California has experienced it," said Petra Jerman, a research scientist with the institute.

The California rate in 2006 increased by less than 1 birth per 1,000 over the previous year. The rate had declined steadily from 71 births per 1,000 in 1991.

The authors of the study "No Time for Complacency: Teen Births in California" didn't offer an explanation for the rise in teen births statewide or in certain regions.

Limited access to free contraceptives or family planning clinics may be one reason that some rural counties saw a spike, said Patsy Montgomery, public affairs director for the South Central Valley Region of Planned Parenthood.

She added that some school districts in the valley do not have comprehensive sex education, which includes abstinence instruction and information about birth control.

"There are still some programs in the valley teaching abstinence until marriage," Montgomery said. "We know on a national level that has not worked."

The study authors wrote that, despite California's budget crisis, societal costs make it worthwhile for state leaders to maintain funding for teen pregnancy prevention. The study provides a breakdown of teen birthrates and related costs by legislative district.

Vicki Bauman, director of prevention programs for the Stanislaus County Office of Education, said she didn't think the change in the county teen birthrate was significant. She felt that programs at local schools are doing a better job of educating students.

"With young people, pregnancy is not the first thing they are thinking about," Bauman said. "They are thinking about STDs like (human papillomavirus) and chlamydia, because they are very prevalent in our county."

Armed with funding from the Children and Families Commission, the Office of Education oversees school site education programs on delaying sexual activity, use of birth control and sexually transmitted diseases.

More education could focus on teenage boys, stressing the consequences of unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancies, Bauman said.

Esmeralda Gonzalez, teen pregnancy prevention coordinator for the county Health Services Agency, said the agency is expecting a 10 percent cut in family planning funding from the state Department of Health Services.

She said the agency still will offer its five- to eight-day prevention programs geared for seventh- and ninth-graders at local schools.

"We are trying to implement a parent education component on the importance of dialoguing with their children on sensitive topics," Gonzalez said. "Teens do value their parents' opinion."

Planned Parenthood officials are worried about nonprofit groups that operate prevention programs funded by small grants from the state. Even though the cuts amount to less than $10,000 for specific groups, they could be devastating for efforts to address the teen birthrate, Montgomery said.

"One area that is being cut are the male involvement programs," she said. "They work with young men who are high risk for becoming fathers before they are prepared for the responsibility. They are considered exemplary programs."

On the Net: http://teenbirths.phi.org.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or 578-2321.

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