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May 10th, 2012

Clarion Ledger – Battling Teen Pregnancy: The Right Plan is Key

MWB’s Tim Mask wrote an opinion piece for the Clarion Ledger regarding Mississippi’s initiative to reduce teen pregnancy rates. The text follows:

Addressing teenage pregnancy is the key to Mississippi’s social and economic future. But to be successful, it must be done right.

Looking strictly from a statistical vantage point, teenage pregnancy is one of the most reliable predictors of low income, poverty and need for public assistance. There are many factors that contribute to or create barriers for individuals achieving economic independence. Among these are low educational attainment, drug use, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, neglect and poor health choices. However, a common thread seen running through disadvantaged communities, arguably the most fundamental one, is teenage pregnancy.

Americans are optimists at heart, never wanting to believe that someone is “doomed” to any kind of pre-determined existence. True enough, this country is built on countless stories of people who at one time made poor choices but overcame the consequences to “make it.” Sadly, such a narrative is the exception rather than the rule. Statistics are stubborn things. According to Child Trends, a non-profit research foundation affiliated with the Annie E. Casey Family Programs foundation, 80 percent of teenagers who become pregnant eventually require some form of public assistance. Furthermore, the female children of teenage parents are more likely to become teenage parents as well, while male children of teenage parents are more likely than average to be incarcerated in later life.

Why you should care

According to the Counting It Up project by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, there is a definite correlation between economic status and teenage pregnancy; subsequently, teen pregnancy is a major factor contributing to poverty. The two form a vicious cycle that quickly becomes a multi-generational issue. There is also a strong correlation between teen pregnancy and low educational attainment. According to Kids Having Kids, a special report from The Robin Hood Foundation, only 41 percent of teen girls who become pregnant ever complete high school, and 98 percent of teen mothers don’t receive a college degree before their 30th birthday.

If we translate these percentages into real dollar figures, the cost to our state and populace is staggering. In 2008 (the most recent year we have verified statistics), the total cost of teen pregnancy to Mississippi taxpayers was $159 million. That number doesn’t even factor lost productivity of the teen parents and other family members, which results in lost revenue to the state. The real impact number is much higher.

Regardless of your philosophical leanings vis-a-vis the proper role of government, a strong case can be made across the political spectrum in favor of public investment in teen pregnancy education and reduction. Mississippi now has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the United States. As discussed, this contributes to our high-school dropout rates, our dependence on public assistance, our lower per capita income, an underperforming GDP and various other stats for which it seems Mississippi is perpetually “at the bottom.”

Governor Phil Bryant seems to be making the issue of teen pregnancy an early focus of his administration. A public investment in t een pregnancy prevention is wise and will pay dividends for our citizens. There is, however, a difference between such an initiative being a true investment versus an expense. If not conducted in a comprehensive and strategically sound manner, a teen pregnancy initiative could end up costing taxpayers millions with little or nothing to show for it. If properly planned and implemented, the effort could result in saving billions, fundamentally changing our society for the better and helping break the vicious familial cycle of generations.

What is effective?

What does a properly planned and implemented teen pregnancy initiative look like? It must be science-based, comprehensive and sustained. At the societal level, teen pregnancy is a matter of public health and safety. Most public health and safety efforts underperform. A few succeed spectacularly. Two of the most recognized and successful such initiatives have been for safety belt usage and tobacco prevention. In the span of less than a generation, these programs have fundamentally changed the way we behave.

In 1994, national seatbelt usage stood at 58 percent. By 2010, this number had risen dramatically to 85 percent. That kind of radical increase can typically only be expected to occur across the span of a few generations.

At the state level, Mississippi has been at the forefront of tobacco prevention. As tracked by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s (CDC) Youth Tobacco Survey and the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, the state’s comprehensive efforts¬†in this area have resulted in a significant drop in tobacco usage rates among teens and pre-teens that are among the best in the nation.¬†Both of these successful initiatives have commonalities in being science-based, comprehensive in scope and sustained in nature. These factors are necessary to ensure a public health and safety effort is an investment rather than an expense.

Science-based

Public health and safety initiatives, particularly in regard to communications and message development, differ greatly from traditional “retail” marketing. In marketing a product or service, a company is typically speaking to an existing need or desire of its target audience, and attempts to present its product or brand as the best alternative to fulfill this desire. Concerning public health and safety, most efforts must first encourage people to consider an aspect that is neither a need or desire, nor something that is top-of-mind. Second, the objective is often to have the target audience engage in a behavior that is not natural or typical.

Volumes have been written on science- based models for public health and safety outreach. Mississippi policymakers must carefully consider which model to implement, based on our state’s demographics, psychographics, culture and media consumption habits. What has worked in Oregon or Indiana may not work here. The wrong strategy can result in an ineffective and costly effort.

The big picture

The most successful public health and safety initiatives have been those that take a comprehensive approach. For instance, the national seatbelt campaign mentioned earlier. There was a robust media component (remember the “Dummies” commercials?); a strong advocacy effort- think of all the seatbelt safety messages that are filtered through schools and other child education outlets; and a successful policy component – many of us buckle-up today because not doing so is a fineable offense.

This approach roughly follows the highly comprehensive precede-proceed model for changing health and safety behaviors. Generally speaking, this approach seeks to “diagnose” and “treat” issues in all areas of life that influence the individual’s behavior ‚Äî social, faith-based, media consumption and the public policy. The same approach has been used for Mississippi’s tobacco prevention efforts with great success.

Sustained

Both the national seatbelt initiative and the Mississippi-based tobacco prevention initiative achieved significant results in a relatively short period of time. However, both efforts have been sustained over the course of several years. It is the nature of public health and safety initiatives that significant and lasting change can’t be achieved overnight. A brief effort, regardless of how intense it may be, simply does not produce lasting results.

For Mississippi to reap the benefits that result from lower teen pregnancy rates, we must be willing to commit resources “for the long haul.” Such a commitment, if correctly implemented, will pay us back many times above our principal investment in both public savings and quality of life for our citizens. That’s money and effort well- spent.

Tim Mask

Tim Mask

President
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