When is a Social Problem no Longer a Social Problem?
If a tree falls and nobody is around to hear it, does it make any noise?
You’ve likely heard this hypothetical question before. Sociologically speaking, we might ask in a similar vein: if a social problem improves dramatically but few people know about these improvements, is it still a social problem?
I started thinking about this in my social problems class recently. Each semester, students are very surprised to learn that rates of teen pregnancy have declined dramatically. In fact, a recent report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute notes that the teen pregnancy rate is now at an all-time low in U.S. history.
Taking a look at data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the birth rates for 15-17-year-olds fell 45 percent between 1991 and 2008 (the most recent year for which we have data). For 18-19-year-olds, the birth rate fell 26 percent during this time frame. And while births to 10-14-year-olds are very rare (6 per 10,000 girls in this age group in 2008), this represents drop of more than 50 percent since 1991.
The Guttmacher Institute report also notes that the abortion rate for teens has fallen to the lowest level since abortion became legal in 1973, and the rate fell by 59 percent since its peak in 1988. The authors conclude that increased contraceptive use and a decrease in sexual activity help explain the declines.
Despite these significant changes, which have been publicized as the CDC releases data each year, the notion that teen pregnancy is a continuing—and even worsening—problem persists. Some might argue that until the teen pregnancy rate is zero we will still have a problem, that births to teens who may be too inexperienced to become parents is an issue regardless. All we need to do is check out an episode of MTV’s Teen Mom to see why teens and parenting might not mix.
While most contemporary Americans would agree that it’s a good idea to wait until adulthood and achieve emotional maturity and financial stability before becoming a parent, historically teens have regularly become parents. As you can see from the CDC graph below, the birth rate for 15-19-year-olds was 96.3 per thousand in 1957 (it was 41.5 per thousand in 2008).
Despite the widespread belief that the 1950s was an age of innocence compared with today, teens were more than twice as likely to become pregnant then than they are now. The difference was those 1950s teens were also significantly more likely to get married before giving birth. The economic boom after World War II meant that people could afford to support a family at much earlier ages then. Thus, teen pregnancy was not perceived as serious a social problem as today, even though teens were much more likely to become pregnant.
Sociologist Mike A. Males has argued in his book Teenage Sex and Pregnancy: Modern Myths, Unsexy Realities, that the term “teen pregnancy” is itself problematic. Males notes that many teens become pregnant by adult men rather than other teens, so often only one parent is a teen. And as noted above, the largest proportion of teen moms are actually eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, who are technically adults.
And as you can see from the data in the graph below, the teen pregnancy rate varies dramatically by race/ethnicity. In order to understand these pregnancies better, it is important to examine what factors may make Latina, American Indian/Alaska Natives, and African American teens more likely to get pregnant. (Or, by contrast, what factors make Asian American/Pacific Islanders and Non-Hispanic whites less likely).
As Males points out in his book, “’Teen pregnancy’ is strictly an economic phenomenon.” Through use of international and local data on birth rates and poverty rates, he demonstrates the strong relationship between the two. Teen pregnancy is not only an issue about sex; teens who get pregnant are more likely to live in poverty. Perceiving fewer options for the future, an early pregnancy might not seem to derail one’s future opportunities if you don’t realistically think you have any.
So is teen pregnancy still a social problem? As sociologist Joel Best observes in his text, Social Problems, a social problem is based as much on perception as on any objective evidence. Yes, data indicate that fewer teens are having children today than in the past. But many could argue a troubling condition still exists nonetheless. Because a large group of people perceive this as a social problem, it continues to be.