As the deadline for Congress to pass the budget deal—or else shut down the government—looms closer, our elected officials have found themselves embroiled in yet another battle. This time around, an important sex education program that benefits low-income teens and women of color is at stake, as conservatives threaten to gut the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI).
Although we have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of teen pregnancies, the United States still experiences higher rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) than other Western countries. Despite this fact, current conservative proposals would cut funding for TPPI by nearly 90 percent. This critical program, which represents one of the two major federal funding streams for comprehensive sex education, works to reduce the number of unplanned teen pregnancies through increasing access to medically-accurate and age-appropriate evidence-based programs, contraception, and reproductive health care services. But instead of backing this successful model, Congress would increase funding for Abstinence Only Until Marriage programs (AOUM) by $10 million, despite the fact that states with abstinence-only education have the highest teen birth rates.
Many AOUM programs (also known by the misleading term “Sexual Risk Avoidance” programs) advance deeply problematic gender expectations and generally ignore the needs of LGBTQ youth or stigmatize homosexuality. They also often provide medically inaccurate information, undermining students’ ability to make safe and informed choices.
This misguided effort by conservatives to gut TPPI fails to address the immediate causes of teen pregnancy. The U.S. has high rates of unplanned pregnancy and STIs relative to other nations likely because we have lower rates of contraceptive use. By contrast, comprehensive sex education, which TPPI helps to provide, increases contraception usage and particularly benefits teens, who are disproportionately likely to experience unplanned pregnancies.
Unlike abstinence-only programs, TPPI also works to address racial disparities in access to comprehensive sex education by specifically focusing on the African American and Hispanic communities. These communities are less likely to receive comprehensive sex education—if any at all—and face higher rates of poverty. Economic deprivation is known to make it more difficult for teens of color to access contraception and other sexual health services. The result is that Hispanic and black youth have the highest teen pregnancy rates—more than double that of white youth—and are disproportionately likely to contract STIs.
The facts clearly show that it is counterproductive for Congress to slash funding for evidenced-based programs while pouring more resources into programs that we know are ineffective. Moreover, it is inequitable, as cutting TPPI funds would specifically harm the students who already face limited access to comprehensive sex education and reproductive health care services.
But while the correlations between poverty, race, and teen pregnancy are undeniable, we have to avoid treating teen pregnancy prevention as a silver-bullet solution to ending poverty. A 30-year study from the University of Pennsylvania that followed 300 teen mothers from Baltimore found that teen childbirth was not the major cause of their economic difficulties. This finding has been supported by Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine who also note that, “teen birth itself does not appear to have much direct economic consequence.” Rather, women who grow up in poverty are likely to live in poverty their entire lives regardless of whether or not they have a baby as a teen or wait until they are older.
But regardless of its effectiveness as an anti-poverty measure, the work of TPPI to reduce the prevalence of STIs and unplanned pregnancy is valuable. The program promotes equality among teenagers and increases students’ agency. Moreover, TPPI is ushering in an important paradigm shift by funding comprehensive sex education aimed at empowering young people to parent when they decide they are ready; this contrasts with the dangerous notion of using contraceptives to reduce the number of poor children, an idea popular among some moderate and conservative politicians that brings to mind a dark history of forced sterilizations and state control over the bodies of low-income women.
Instead of gutting effective programs, our elected leaders should adopt a broad strategy to ensure young people can reach their full potential. While programs like TPPI that fund comprehensive sex education are a central part of this work, the government must also invest in jobs and adopt strong anti-poverty policies in order to bring about more opportunities for social mobility.
The clock is ticking for Congress to act. We need politicians that will fight for the sexual health and empowerment of teenagers, not contest the very existence of the institution they serve.