Monday, June 30, 2008

Sentinel could have used a pregnant pause

Sunday, the Sentinel and Enterprise published an expose on teen pregnancy in the twin cities of Leominster and Fitchburg. Reading the article, which was most likely spurred by the recent discussion around an alleged "pregnancy pact" in Gloucester, one would think that Leominster and Fitchburg were facing a crisis of teen pregnancy, with the cities awash in belly-busting youngsters.

The reality, at least in Leominster, is significantly different. In fact, using the same Massachusetts Department of Public Health report that provides the basis for the Sentinel piece, I would suggest that Leominster has made more strides in fighting teen pregnancies than nearly any city in the commonwealth.

But that's not going to sell papers, is it?

Anyway, after introducing us to a pregnant 15-year-old, the author of the article suggests that things in the twin cities are getting worse:
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health listed Leominster and Fitchburg in the top 25 highest cities for teen births.

Fitchburg, number 7 on the list, saw a 47 percent increase in its teen birth rate from 2005 to 2006.

This indicates that for every 1,000 female teenagers between the age of 15 to 19, 58.2 had babies.

Leominster, number 20 on the list, saw a shocking 73 percent increase in teen births. The number for 2006 totals 30.3 women per 1,000 having babies.
Let's start by giving a little bit better context to the DPH study. Leominster and Fitchburg are listed among the top 25 cities for total number of teen births. This is not really much of a surprise, since Leominster in 30th in the state in total population and Fitchburg just slightly behind. While it would be nice if the two cities weren't on the list, you'd expect the cities with the highest populations to also have the most teen births based solely on statistics.

Now, Fitchburg is number 7 on the list, but it is seventh in teen birth rate, not seventh in most teen births (which was the context provided in the previous line of the story). Fitchburg is 11th in total teen births; still too high, but not quite as high as you might assume based on the way the article is written. Fitchburg also had a dramatic rise in teen birth rate over the last year. While that is disappointing, the study also points out (on the same page) that the teen birth rate has actually fallen since 1996, from 62.0 births per 1,000 to 58.2. Taken in that context, conditions in Fitchburg have actually improved over the last decade.

But that's not going to sell papers, is it?

More egregiously, the paper implies that Leominster is spiraling into an abyss where every street corner is crowded with teeny-boppers pushing strollers and listening to Miley Cyrus on the iPod, thanks to a "shocking 73 percent increase in teen births."

Let's look at this in context. In 2006, 38 teens in Leominster gave birth. While that is 38 or so more than the city would like, it's less than half the 91 teen births in Fitchburg. Moreover, it's nearly half the number of teen births in Leominster in 1996. Over the last 10 years, the number of teen births has dropped from 72 to 38. Because of population changes, the teen birth rate has been cut by more than half, from 64.7 to 30.3.

Shocking? You bet! What a shocking success in turning around what had been a near crisis!

Let's take a look at where Leominster lines up, when the standard is reduction in birth rate. Here are the top 5 cities (of the 25 on this list) when ranked by improvement over the last 10 years:

CITY 1996, 2006 % change
Somerville 43.5, 17.9 -59%
Leominster 64.7, 30.3 -53%
Taunton 63.1, 32.5 -48%
Cambridge 15.1, 8.2 -46%
Brockton 76.2, 42.9 -44%
It looks to me like Leominster has been doing a heck of a job over the last 10 years. While there has been an uptick in the last year, the overall numbers look very good. It's too bad the Sentinel would rather sensationalize the few teen births there are in Leominster than look at why the city has been so successful in addressing the problem over the last decade.

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