Back when I was a kid, a British-American rapper named Slick Rick had a hit song entitled "Teenage Love." No, you won't find this somewhat obscure song inside the jukebox of your local dive bar, but it resonated with many an adolescent back then.
During that era here in Kern County, my own versions (yes, plural) of teenage love ran amok with dating usually consisting of a movie at the Stockdale Six Movie Theater, a stop at Jimmy's Arcade on California Avenue and an exhilarating cruise down Chester Avenue with my Jheri Curl whipping in the Bakersfield wind. For the readers that aren't aware of what a Jheri Curl actually is, it's the chemically induced African-American version of a mullet. But I digress.
Teenage birth rates were at an all-time high. California had the 11th highest teen birth rate in the nation. Some credit (or blame) the late 1980s federal immigration recalibration for the jump in percentages, which allowed families to reunite. Others blame an unwillingness to make sex education universal.
Fast forward to 2016 and you'll find Kern County at the top of the list when it comes to teenage pregnancy rates. The 2015 County Health Rankings released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, finds that of the 57 counties researched, Kern County ranked near the bottom. The study "looked at health factors based on four types of measures: health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic, and physical environment factors." It found that Kern County had a much higher teen pregnancy rate when compared to other California counties. As in, 45.1 per 1,000 teens give birth in Kern as opposed to 20.8 out of every 1,000 statewide, a ranking of 51st. Ouch. Not good.
Understandably, our local residents attempt to use multiple scapegoats as a way to lessen the embarrassment of having such numbers. Bakersfield already has the worst air quality, top 10 in lowest credit scores, one of the highest dropout rates, the most illiterate residents and, according The Guardian, the "deadliest police department in the United States." Adding "crown wearer of highest teenage pregnancy rates" would inevitably make Bristol Palin a viable mayoral candidate for Bakersfield.
I've heard excuses such as:
"The minorities are skewing our numbers!" Yeah, because minorities aren't American citizens and shouldn't be counted towards the total. Stop it.
"We need more abstinence education!" I agree, but it would be just as effective as Nancy Reagan's "Say No to Drugs" campaign without an additional method. Half-hearted.
"Those illegals are coming over here and knocking up our citizens or getting knocked up by a citizen!" Well, the Census Bureau does not ask for one's legal status. So how would you know? Tin foil hats again.
"It's the media! TV, radio and Internet are poisoning the minds of our youth!" As practical as that statement may seem, there is currently no scientific evidence linking the media to teenage sexual promiscuity. However, Miley Cyrus' metamorphosis from Hannah Montana should warrant an FBI investigation.
The numbers have declined over the last few years, but so has the rest of the country. Kern County currently is No. 1 in teen pregnancy in California, and the United States as a whole still has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world. We're No. 1!
So why does Kern County consistently have such a high teen birth rate? Poverty and playtime.
Offering fewer options to the at-risk segments of the population will always lead to elevated crime and teen birth rates. As my childhood mentor used to tell me, "Give the young people something to do before they choose each other to do." Literally and figuratively. We're still eradicating the arts and trade programs from our schools, ignoring the cradle-to-prison pipeline and not recognizing that Bakersfield's social scene for the youth is mediocre at best.
I challenge the school districts and elected officials to give our children more options to deter them from elevating our teenage pregnancy rates. Times are a-changin' along with the methodology, but the biology is the same. Teenagers will continue to love one another. Now we have to show them how to love in return. Who deserves the blame for Kern County's teen pregnancy rate? All of us.
Danny Morrison is a local on-air radio personality and motivational speaker.