Population health researcher Dr Ann Larson has been investigating an increase in births to teenage mothers in rural, regional and remote areas of Australia.

She suggests in the article below, cross-posted from her blog, Social Dimensions, that the increase reflects “an economic growth that has sidelined young regional women, and to a lesser extent young men, who do not have the range of educational and employment opportunities to lead them into pathways other than early parenting”.


An increase in teenage mothers in regional Australia

Ann Larson writes:

In a recent post I looked at the high rates of early child bearing in two regions of Western Australia.  I argued that this was in part due to lower school completion rates plus young women’s lack of engagement in the construction and mining sectors that are driving economic growth in the region.

In short, young women who did not move to the city with their peers were left with few other meaningful options.  The concern is not so much that they have become mothers, but that they have done so without the schooling and work experience that will assist them to have a solid economic future for themselves and their children.

That argument led me to look what was happening throughout regional, rural and remote Australia. The results concern me.

In 2010 an increase in births to teenaged mothers made headlines.  In 2008 and 2009 the teenage fertility rate was about 17 births per 1000 women aged 15-19 years old—up from a rate of about 15 in the five years previous but about the same as it was in 2001 and 2002.  This translated into about 1000 more births to teenagers.

According to an admittedly fast Google search, that was the last time teenage pregnancies made the headlines.  That is because in the following years the 15-19 fertility rate declined—but only in the major cities.

In regional, rural and remote Australia the rates continued to climb.  Because Australia is such an urban country, the rise made little difference on national figures.

From 2006 to 2011, the national 15-19 year old birth rate increased 4%, from 15.7 per 1000 to 16.3.  Using the ABS remoteness scale, the rate declined by 3% in major cities, and increased in inner (11%) and outer (7%) regional, remote (10%) and very remote (13%) areas.

So why did this happen?  The baby bonus is a possibility.  Several studies comparing expected to actual birth rates pre and post the introduction of the baby bonus in 2004 suggest that it did.   The most recent study is based on the Western Australian linked data set.

However, another study pointed out that other countries had a fertility increase in the period just before the Global Financial Crisis. Some had introduced financial payments for new births and others had not.

Australia, less affected by the economic meltdown than other countries, has maintained the higher fertility rates since 2008, although there have been no further increases. As Nick Parr, one of the authors, argued in The Conversation, it is time to put the baby bonus myth to bed.

Furthermore, the studies that do discern a baby bonus effect think it worked on the higher parity and older (age 20 and over) young women. None of the studies thought the baby bonus affected teenaged birth rates. (In addition to the WA studies, see this and this.)

I think that the higher fertility is the result of an economic growth that has sidelined young regional women, and to a lesser extent young men, who do not have the range of educational and employment opportunities to lead them into pathways other than early parenting. I’ll be adding to this pessimistic argument in future posts.

Australia is so lucky to have the marvellous (timely, accessible) series of births data produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Anyone who can drive a spread sheet can download the numbers of births and birth rates from as recent as 2011.  I used Births, 2011 (ABS Cat No. 3301.0) for the statistics in this post.

Thank you to Alan Bradley, CEO of the Regional Development Australia Mid West Gascoyne for commissioning this profile of regional youth.

•  Ann Larson is a demographer and population health expert with 30 years experience in describing population health needs and evaluating programs, with a particular emphasis on Indigenous, rural Australian and global health. She was the inaugural director of the Combined Universities Centre for Rural Health and is a visiting fellow at National Centre for Population Health and Epidemiology at the Australian National University. Her blog gives practical methods for planning and evaluating social programs that make a difference. 


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