To prevent teen pregnancy start where problems are greatest
West Virginia's teen birth rate is embarrassingly high, higher than the national average, right?
Absolutely. If you look at a national map from Kids Count's most recent report, West Virginia stands out in red, in company with some of the deep South and Southwest, surrounded by states with lower rates of teen pregnancy.
But it hasn't always been this way. As recently as 2000, West Virginia's teen birth rate was slightly lower than the national rate.
And if you look more closely at individual counties, a whole other story appears. Nationally, 34 teens out of every 1,000 females age 15 to 19 had babies in 2010. In West Virginia, the rate was 45.
But 11 counties are below the national average. Monongalia is lowest at 14, followed by Gilmer, Brooke, Pleasants, Pendleton, Upshur, Hancock, Jefferson, Tucker, Putnam and Ohio, at 36.
Above the national rate, but not by much, are Morgan, Pocahontas, Marion and Doddridge.
The counties that drag West Virginia into the red category on the map are Logan, 62.83; Mercer, 65.69; Calhoun, 66.56; Fayette, 68.32; Boone, 70.48; Clay, 71.2; Mingo, 79.45; and McDowell, 95.76. McDowell's teen birth rate is almost one in 10.
What is going on there?
"They're poor," says Margie Hale, executive director of West Virginia Kids Count, which produced the report "Teen Pregnancy in West Virginia: The Numbers and What We Can Do."
"It's like another state."
"What's so serious if you grow up in an area of concentrated poverty is you may not have a sense of yourself in the future," Hale said.
Many young people who grow up in lifelong poverty, where everyone and everything around them is poor, do not walk around with thoughts in their heads such as, "I'm going to be a nurse," or "I'm going to finish high school," Hale said.
They lack not only career goals, but also a sense of themselves beyond the current day. "That leads to risky behavior."
To make a difference, Kids Count recommends fully implementing the state's good, comprehensive sex education curriculum.
"As I understand it, it is unevenly administered," Hale said.
It is part of a larger health curriculum that goes from fifth to 12th grade. It includes anatomy, but as students get older it also talks about risky behavior and how to avoid it. It helps young people be prepared for situations and how to say no. A small amount of the curriculum is about birth control, she said.
But some teachers or principals aren't comfortable with those topics, or someone complains, so those parts of the health curriculum aren't taught.
"It has been in place since 2003," Hale said. "I was just astounded that among all the things we don't have in West Virginia, we do have a health curriculum that includes sex education. I was impressed. It is something to be proud of."
Among other solutions, Kids Count recommends giving young people a credible vision of their future. This can happen with mentoring programs or after-school workshops where students learn about options such as community college or trade schools. In addition, parents need help to be good sex educators and to help their students learn how to reduce risky behavior, and communities need action plans to prevent teen pregnancy.
If West Virginia did those things, concentrated in Logan, Mercer, Calhoun, Fayette, Boone, Clay, Mingo and McDowell counties, the state might actually move up into a different category, and join its neighbors in a healthier color on the map.
Preventing teen pregnancy is about more than just keeping score against other states.
West Virginia has a troubling high school dropout rate. One in three girls who drop out cite pregnancy as the reason.
Children who are born to teen moms who have never married live in poverty 78 percent of the time.
Children born to teens are more likely to be born underweight. They are more likely to die within the first year of life. They are less likely to have the emotional and intellectual stimulation that research shows prepares them for school and success later on.
So not only do these unplanned pregnancies coming too early in life interfere with a teen mom's ability to get an education and be able to look after a thriving family some day, they also tend to give children a bad start in life.
And we all know where that ends up -- poor showing in school, underachievement, lack of gainful employment, and even poor health, with all the public expenditures that come with it.
Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.