The Rapidian

$446 million Michigan taxpayer dollars to teen pregnancy each year

/Photo courtesy of Levi Konner Hagen

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About this article

This article was written by Jamar Ahmad II, Alena Drayton, Shelby Fazio, Lily Guerrero, Jessica Kenworthy, Marissa Mafteiu, Hannah Starring and Katie Whittington in correspondence with Professor Kevin Den Dulk's Democracy and Political Thinking class at Grand Valley State University.

In the United States, statistics about teenage sexual activity are staggering. A study in Vital and Health Statistics by Abma, et. al., shows that by age 15, 13% of girls and 15% of boys have engaged in sexual intercourse, and by 18, nearly 60% of all teenagers have had sex. While these facts are troubling for youth, the direct effects of unexpected births on young women have an impact on all members of the community.

“Between 1991 and 2004, there were more than 218,000 teen births in Michigan, costing taxpayers a total of $5.8 billion over that period (over $446 million per year on average)," said The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, in part because 80% of teen mothers end up on welfare. Teenage pregnancy not only complicates the lives of the teens but also contributes to a sum the community as a whole must pay. This creates not only a personal problem, but a public problem as well.

What does this mean for Grand Rapids? According to the Community Research Institute, there were 53.2 teen births for every 1,000 females age 15-19 from 2004-2006. This value is higher than the teen birth rate for Kent County (40.5) and surrounding counties during the same time period. Since this data was published, newer statistics show that the county and state rates have both increased. The Michigan Department of Community Health reports that in 2008, there were 12,277 teen births (ages 10-19) in the state of Michigan. This is approximately 10% of all births in that year.

The news media sometimes note the abundance of teen pregnancies, but the impact on taxpayers is often left out of their analyses. Instead of showing how teen pregnancies cause expensive public problems, the media typically focus on defining the factors that are attributed to risky sexual behavior in teenagers and debate the best way to prevent that behavior. Despite the media’s views and other various problematic definitions, it is important to recognize that teen pregnancies affect the public interest as well.


A study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy shows that children of teenage mothers are more likely to be poor, drop out of high school, have lower grade-point averages, lower college aspirations, and poorer school attendance records. According to the Healthy Teen Network, children of teenage parents are 50% more likely to repeat a grade. Roughly 77% percent of these children will earn a high school diploma, compared to 89% of children to older parents. These children are our society’s future, and Grand Rapids’ economy will be negatively impacted if its number of skilled workers decrease. With less education, a person’s earning potential is significantly lower, increasing his or her likelihood of depending on welfare. A report by The National Institute of Literacy shows that nearly half of individuals on welfare do not have a high school diploma or GED.

This problem stems in part from the overwhelming emphasis on the positive aspects of sex presented to teens and not the possible negative repercussions. Recent studies discussed on the Today Show have shown a strong correlation between viewing sexual content in television, movies, and advertisements and teenage pregnancies. This content is not limited to adult programming but can also include sitcoms, animated shows, reality television and other live-action shows. A RAND Corporation study found that teens exposed to high levels of sexual content are twice as likely to be involved in a teenage pregnancy. This study also concluded that sitcoms have the highest rates of sexual content. This means that even teens who avoid adult films and other R-rated movies and shows may still be exposing themselves to high levels of sexual content during regular weeknight television viewing. Professionals suggest the best way to combat this trend is for parents to watch these types of programs with their children and discuss the situations presented.

In the Grand Rapids Public School System (GRPS), the majority of time in health class is spent learning about HIV, AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Students learn how STIs are transmitted and the health effects associated with them. At the high school level, abstinence is stressed as the best option for avoiding STIs and pregnancy. A comprehensive sexual education curriculum, which now includes information on contraceptives, was implemented in 2008. Waiting to have sexual intercourse and learning avoidance maneuvers for risky situations are the primary approach used when discussing STIs and pregnancy prevention. Students are led through structured discussions, group activities, and videos.

In GRPS, sexual education teachers must be certified through the Reproductive Institute (a course provided by the Kent County Health Department). According to Kelly Williams, Director of GRPS Sex Education, there is currently only one certified professional in each Grand Rapids Public high school, thus greatly limiting the availability of sexual education to students. Even with this certification, teachers are trained to refer students to families for “difficult” questions that are not easily answered in the school environment. The Michigan Model for Comprehensive School Health Education says that the help of families in reinforcing the skills taught in school is “essential.”

Consequently, it is critical that parents start talking with their children about sex as early as possible. A study done by Kathleen Commendador shows that communication between parents and children about sex and sexual health can delay the age at which teenagers begin having sex, and increase contraceptive use as well.

The best way for a parent to talk to their children about sex is openly and honestly. However, if this is a difficult topic for some parents, there is help available to begin the talking process. Planned Parenthood and the Pregnancy Resource Center, both located on Cherry Street, are two organizations in the southeast side of the Grand Rapids area that are working to reduce the problem of teenage pregnancy. Both of these organizations promote abstinence as the only absolute way of preventing pregnancy, but vast amounts of literature are distributed advocating smart usage of contraceptives. These are extremely useful resources but they cannot be solely responsible for the elimination of unwanted teenage pregnancies.

Teenage pregnancy in the Grand Rapids community does not affect only those teens who become pregnant and the people close to them, it affects everyone within the community. Each citizen will feel the effect of teenage pregnancy in some way, even if they are not immediately aware of it. Everyone feels the effects, whether because of the cost of taxes, the further economic troubles due to the lack of skilled workers, the lack of funding to schools, or countless other reasons.

Programs in the community are working towards solutions for Grand Rapids’ distressing teenage pregnancy problem, but they cannot fix the issue without aid from the people of Grand Rapids. Community support for the GRPS Comprehensive Sexual Education curriculum and private organizations are essential for growth and widespread understanding. Above all, communication between parent and child is key to getting to the root of this public problem and solving it. So, stand up, Grand Rapids and get involved in educating our future leaders.

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Thanks for the well researched article. Education is essential for teens to develop healthy and safe sex habits. Providing accurate and honest information about birth control and disease prevention needs to begin early and be constantly reinforced. Unfortunately, the Pregnancy Resource Center provides only abstinence education and does not facilitate access to condoms or other forms of birth control. From 5000+ years of human sexual activity it seems like we would be smart enough to see that abstinence is not a viable route for the majority of humans. With the right information and access we certainly are smart enough to prevent pregnancy and avoid disease by the use of something as simple as a condom, which are abundantly available at Planned Parenthood.

Cory makes a strong point. As college students who aren't as distant as a lot of us from that experience of high school sex ed, what are your thoughts?