There has been a decline in sexual activity among teenagers and an increase in the use of contraceptives among sexually active teens, which some experts suggest is the reason why there has been an across-the-board decrease in teen birth rates, according to a recent CDC report.
I'm not so sure we can start patting ourselves on the back for this continued decline. The same report indicated that teen pregnancy rates are still high among racial and ethnic minorities, namely blacks and Hispanics. States also have different levels of teen pregnancies, indicating that there are some places where teens may be more likely to become pregnant than others. These two facts are not mutually exclusive; research has suggested a tie between race and residence, and researchers have found many mechanisms that have produced racially segregated areas.
Consider one of those mechanisms: gentrification. What would teen pregnancy rates look like in neighborhoods that underwent or are currently going through widespread change? To be clear, gentrification is primarily a phenomenon in which upper class whites buy and renovate properties in economically distressed neighborhoods that often have high percentages of racial minorities. Not only do the individuals who move into these neighborhoods differ from the long-standing residents in terms of race and income, but also with respect to age and marital status. Young adults who are single or are in childless relationships tend to be the bulk of the gentry.
The differences between old and new residents in gentrifying neighborhoods results in a change in the amenities in those areas. Restaurants, leisure activities and shopping emerge for the incoming (and future) high earners in the neighborhood, pushing existing amenities out. The neighborhood looks and feels different based on these changes, and that feeling may prompt individuals to leave — either voluntarily or by being displaced.
So how would this kind of neighborhood change be linked to declining teenage pregnancy rates? One might expect that if a neighborhood characterized as high minority, economically distressed, with a high proportion of families (where teen pregnancy rates tend to be high) is transformed into one that is the exact opposite, the teen pregnancy rate may decline. We see this in the nation's capital, where the teen pregnancy rate in Washington, D.C., differs by census tract, which is the Census Bureau's way of statistically capturing a neighborhood. However, of the 54 census tracts that Governing Magazine identifies as having gentrified between 2000 and 2016, over 90 percent had a decline in teen pregnancies during the same time period, according to data extracted from D.C.'s Department of Health.
However, when people who live in distressed neighborhoods have to move, they tend to do so into other distressed neighborhoods. So, among the census tracts within the larger DC-Maryland-Virginia metropolitan area where there was a substantial increase in the population, but the area was still economically disadvantaged with high minority concentrations, over 60 percent saw an increase in teen pregnancies between 2000 and 2016.
This spatial relationship between neighborhoods and teen-age childbearing has been seen since the 1970s. Researchers noted that "small improvements in inner city environments" may reduce teen pregnancies, mainly because the environments where teen pregnancy risk is high may not have access to supportive structures such as quality schools, health infrastructure and amenities designed and meant for teenagers to enjoy. However, researchers who suggested the level of intervention of the neighborhood environment probably did not imagine a complete overhaul that so many gentrified areas have seen in more recent times.
A recent report on teenage childbearing among D.C. area teens noted that the lack of amenities in more economically distressed neighborhoods as a problem that may be linked to high teen birth rates in those sections of the city. When neighborhoods are neglected, the residents feel alienated. When neighborhoods drastically change without consideration of the residents, the residents feel alienated too, but they also can be displaced.
I would encourage local government and urban planners to think about preserving and introducing supportive structures for teen parents in these neighborhoods in transition, and, perhaps more importantly, consider how to use the built environment to prevent teen pregnancies from occurring and from being displaced into other economically distressed neighborhoods.
Antwan Jones is an associate professor of sociology at The George Washington University; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.