Kansas Takes On Teen Pregnancies

Gov. Sam Brownback is using cash assistance to support a youth reading program as a way to reduce out-of-wedlock teen births.

I've been covering health and human services for years now, and I can't count the number of times I've heard sources complain about the media's widespread misunderstanding or outright ignorance of the field. I often brush this off as it gets covered quite prominently by news outlets from television to print. But I must admit, when the coverage is bad, it's really bad.

Take a blog post I came across last month that ran on the Topeka Capital-Journal's website. The blogger, identified only as "keri" -- which should automatically be a red flag -- was opining on the folly of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's proposal to shift around $9 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) spending to youth reading programs in part as a way to reduce teen pregnancy. In the very first paragraph "keri" conflates the issue of cash assistance with child abuse, suggesting that by diverting some TANF funds to a teen literacy program Brownback is putting Kansas kids at greater risk of violence. The two are peripherally related -- obviously a family in fiscal distress is more vulnerable to the chances of domestic violence generally than families that are more fiscally secure, and TANF is meant to promote financial stability and security. But dollars for TANF have nothing to do with dollars for child protective services or foster care.

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The post goes on to criticize Kansas Department for Children and Families' Secretary Phyllis Gilmore for arguing that "the reading initiative is an appropriate use of TANF money because, among other reasons, studies show literate teenage girls are less likely to become unwed mothers, a demographic that TANF seeks to decrease."

"What studies?" asks the blogger. "Can we be [more] vague?"

Reporters can be a notoriously lazy bunch. I'll keep my powder dry on whether bloggers are a particularly lazy sub-species, but even a cursory Internet search looking at the relationship between out-of-wedlock teen births and literacy turns up widespread evidence of a clear link. At its annual meeting last year, the highly respected American Public Health Association presented material building on "previous knowledge about the link between teen pregnancy and social inequities internationally;" one of those social inequities being an inability to read at grade level.

Research findings by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania were presented at the conference from a study of more than 12,300 seventh graders enrolled in Philadelphia public schools, average age just under 12. The study found that "girls with less than average reading skills were 2.5 times more likely to have a child in their teen years compared with those with average reading skills." That's a startling number.

And that wasn't really very new news, either. A 2010 New York Center for School Safety bulletin notes that programs that rely "solely on sex education are less effective than those that also address the non-sexual indicators linked to teenage pregnancy -- particularly school performance and connectedness." The bulletin goes on to say that "early literacy programs may be the most viable investment for those seeking to reduce teen pregnancy, even giving teenagers who do have a child, better opportunities for success in life."

So while Kansas has of late not exactly proved itself to be a place inclined to fabulously lavish spending on health and human services, Brownback and Gilmore deserve credit for doing something that way too many elected and appointed officials have long seemed incapable of doing. That is, using data to inform spending decisions, and also deciding to spend a relatively modest amount of money now in order to forestall significantly greater public costs down the road.

What would now be valuable is if Kansas took a little more money and tracked the progress of young girls who receive reading help compared with those who lag behind in literacy. Such a study could help discern how much difference being able to read -- and therefore more fully enjoy the benefits of a complete education -- means to girls of similar age and circumstances when it comes to out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

As a result, at some point the governor and secretary might be able to spoon feed local bloggers some interesting data on the long established and powerful link between literacy and teen pregnancy, while mentioning the fact that one of the explicit goals of the seminal 1996 federal welfare overhaul was reducing out-of-wedlock births. It might help some reporters write more intelligently about the field.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.