Two Moments Pregnant with Possibility

Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas Former Brookings Expert

April 15, 2011

Policymakers in Austin will soon have two separate opportunities to demonstrate the depth of their commitment to the cause of curbing teen pregnancies, reducing out-of-wedlock births, and promoting personal responsibility.

First, state officials must decide by the end of this month whether to apply for more than $4 million in federal support for teen-pregnancy prevention programs. This funding – which the federal government disburses through the State Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) – was technically allocated for the last fiscal year, but program rules allow Texas to claim its allotment before the end of April. A similar sum of money has also been allocated for the current fiscal year. Accessing and spending these funds – nearly $9 million in all – wouldn’t cost the state government a penny. Forty-three other states have already claimed their slices of the pie; Lone Star state officials need only ask for their share, and they will receive it.

The PREP money would pay for the implementation of programs that have already been shown to be effective by rigorous evaluations. In a recent study, my colleagues and I estimated the likely effects of expanding programs like these. The results of our analysis suggest that the federal resources available to Texas could prevent several thousand teen pregnancies from occurring. This would be an important step, since – as Susan Tortelero pointed out in a recent column in this paper – Texas has the third highest teen birth rate in the nation and the highest repeat teen birth rate. Our results also indicate that, for each dollar devoted to PREP-funded interventions, taxpayers could save more than two dollars in spending on pregnant women and young children via programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and welfare cash assistance.

A second moment of opportunity will arrive a few weeks later, when the Texas State Senate decides whether or not to restore $61 million of cuts in family-planning funding that were passed by the State House of Representatives earlier this month. In the study mentioned above, my colleagues and I found that family-planning subsidies are another effective way of preventing unintended pregnancies and unwed births. The results of our study suggest that the funding now on the chopping block in Texas would prevent more than 28,000 unintended pregnancies and more than 13,000 unintended births statewide. Most of those pregnancies and births would occur out of wedlock, and research has shown that nonmarital pregnancy and childbearing are associated with a host of negative outcomes for women and children, including reduced family incomes and diminished levels of educational attainment.

We also found that family-planning subsidies save taxpayers even more money than teen-pregnancy programs. These subsidies are typically targeted on low-income women who, if they were to become pregnant, would be unusually likely to claim government benefits for themselves and their children. As a result, considerable taxpayer savings are generated when these pregnancies are prevented or are simply delayed until after the women in question have improved their financial situations. Our results suggest that, if the $61 million cut from the House budget is restored, it could generate $250 million or more in taxpayer savings.

It is also worth noting that – notwithstanding some of the rhetoric coming out of Washington during the recent budget standoff – state and federal law prohibit the use of family-planning funds to pay for abortions. In fact, both of the policies described here would reduce the incidence of abortion by preventing unintended pregnancies, which account for more than 90% of all abortions.

On an average day in Texas, more than 200 teenaged girls become pregnant and nearly 400 children are born to unwed mothers. Officials must now decide whether to lend their support to two different programs that would prevent thousands of teen pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births each year, even as they reduce the number of abortions and generate sizeable taxpayer savings. These programs are, in a nutshell, smart public investments. Texas’s elected leaders would be wise to support them.