Continuing its investigation into the effectiveness of the 1996 welfare reform law, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources held a November 15 hearing to discuss strategies to reduce teen pregnancy. Noting that three out of four of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program’s basic goals were related to preventing out-of-wedlock births, Subcommittee Chair Wally Herger (R-CA) said, “The reasons are obvious—recent decades have seen teen childbearing in particular and out-of-wedlock childbearing in general become reliable predictors of welfare receipt.”
While agreeing that the reduction of teen pregnancy rates is tremendously important, Ranking Member Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) expressed concern about what he called “pigeon-holing” abstinence-only education funds. “We have to be careful as not to be so prescriptive that it becomes difficult for states to do innovative programs.” He added that there is general agreement that “abstinence is a value we want to instill in our children.”
However, “pigeon-holing funding so tightly to abstinence might preclude other successful programs from receiving money,” he said.
Representing the administration, Bobby Jindal of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) detailed the agency’s efforts to prevent teen pregnancy. Stating that the welfare reform law required the Department to ensure that at least 25 percent of communities throughout the United States have teen pregnancy prevention programs, Mr. Jindal told the subcommittee that in 2001, HHS is “supporting such efforts in at least 47 percent of America’s communities.”
“Teen birth rates have been steadily declining,” he said, adding: “We should be clear—the U.S. teen birth rate is still too high.” In discussing teen pregnancy prevention programs, Mr. Jindal stated that “abstinence-only education programs are a major focus of the Department’s activities to prevent teen pregnancies.”
The 1996 welfare reform law established the State Abstinence Block Grant program, or Title V, which distributes $50 million annually to states to implement abstinence-only programs. According to Mr. Jindal’s testimony, roughly 700 programs have been funded through this block grant. “The most frequently funded local program activities are social skills instruction, character-based education and assets building, public awareness campaigns, curriculum development and implementation, school-based abstinence programs, peer mentoring and education, and parent education programs,” stated Mr. Jindal.
The subcommittee heard testimony from a number of organizations that conduct a variety of programs aimed at preventing teen pregnancy. Gale Grant of the Virginia Abstinence Education Initiative (VAEI) detailed efforts underway in Virginia to implement and evaluate an abstinence-only education program. Ms. Grant told the subcommittee that the initiative is a “five-year, multi-component effort to implement new approaches that will help adolescents develop the attitudes and skills necessary to delay sexual involvement until marriage, and to evaluate systematically the effectiveness of those approaches.” Ms. Grant noted that the program is meant to “provide a continuum in service delivery,” adding that it “was not an either or” situation. “Abstinence-only funding did not displace family planning,” she said.
Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy noted that teen pregnancy and birth rates are declining because “a smaller proportion of teens are having sex, and/or contraceptive use among sexually active teens is improving.” Ms. Brown discussed a recent report released by the campaign, which found that several sex and HIV education programs delayed sex or increased contraceptive use for up to 30 months. “It is also important to point out that the overwhelming weight of research evidence clearly shows that sex and HIV education programs such as these do not increase sexual activity, as some people have reasonably feared,” she said.
Adding that “even if the number of teens who choose abstinence grows significantly… the reality is there will still be many teens who are sexually active,” Ms. Brown stated, “Therefore, preventing teen pregnancy requires that contraceptive services and information be available….We can give a strong ‘abstinence-first’ message, especially for school-age teens, and also offer critically important information and health care.”
Elayne Bennett of the Best Friends Foundation, disagreed, saying that youth are confused by conflicting messages. Her program “teaches that abstinence is the best and most effective way of preventing teen pregnancy and STDs” and reaches 5,500 girls in 26 cities, 14 states, and the District of Columbia. Additionally, the program is conducted during the school day at participating schools. “School principals view the Best Friends/Best Men curriculum as important for young people as core academic courses,” she said.
In discussing the program’s success, Ms. Bennett told the subcommittee that an independent evaluation conducted in 1999 found that 4.2 percent of seventh grade girls and 5.6 percent of eighth grade girls who participated in the D.C. program were sexually active. In comparison, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 18.5 percent of seventh grade girls and 34.7 percent of eighth grade girls in D.C. were sexually active. “Clearly, our program works,” she said.
RoseAnne Bilodeau of Greater New Britain Teen Pregnancy Prevention, Inc. detailed the success of its program, known as the Pathways/Senderos Center. Noting that the program’s motto is “diplomas before diapers,” Ms. Bilodeau stated that an evaluation of the program found that in the eight years since the program’s inception, “only two participants have ever created a pregnancy, while 100% remain in school.” Ms. Bilodeau stated that the program emphasizes education, career/vocational exploration, community service projects, family life and sex education, arts and life-long sporting activities. “We have created a positive peer group, which carries on when we are not there on some weekends and during school hours. Our youngsters bond as a family and strive together to become responsible, civic-minded, self-sufficient citizens,” she said.
Speaking to the evaluation of abstinence-only education programs, Rebecca Maynard of the University of Pennsylvania discussed the review she is currently undertaking on behalf of HHS. The review will evaluate the effectiveness of programs funded through Title V as required under the welfare law; preliminary data will be available in early 2003.
Stating that there was “no definitive evidence linking any of these provisions [1996 welfare reform provisions pertaining to out-of-wedlock births] with favorable trends in teen pregnancies and births,” Ms. Maynard said that there is evidence that “federal support of abstinence education…has focused attention at the state and local level on the problems.”
She also added that the Title V money has “expanded and changed the conversation about the role of abstinence education in local communities,…fostered the development of new strategies for promoting abstinence among youth,…and increased significantly the number of abstinence education service providers and the number of youth they serve.”
During questioning, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-CT) expressed the hope that Congress would “address the issue of connectivity” when it considers welfare reform reauthorization next year. “Teen pregnancy prevention isn’t just about teen girls or teen boys, but also about family systems,” she said. “If we’re going to bring mothers into the workforce with children, we have to make sure that those children don’t become teen parents….We’re dealing with that as a daycare subsidy issue, and it’s not just a daycare subsidy issue,” she stated, arguing that the education of fathers and teen pregnancy prevention should be integrated into welfare reform.