A shortsighted cut

The decision to end a state program aimed at preventing teen pregnancy is a good example of how trying to cut costs in the short run is likely to cost the state more in the long run.

Officials with the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that the state would end funding for a program targeting at-risk girls ages 10 to 19 for pregnancy prevention efforts. Living in poverty, being previously pregnant, having parents or siblings who were teen parents and being abused as a child are some of the criteria that define at-risk girls.

State funding for the program is $400,000, but that money is matched 9-to-1 with federal funding, which brings the total to $4 million a year.

State funding will stop Dec. 31, largely because budget cuts were ordered by the state budget board. Teen advocates call it a backward move.

Teen pregnancy rates are on the rise in South Carolina. In 2006, more than 10,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 became pregnant in South Carolina. That's nearly 36 of every 1,000 girls in that age group, and more than a quarter of those girls had been pregnant before.

The rise reverses a trend that had seen pregnancy rates dropping for a decade. From 1994 to 2004, teen pregnancy rates dropped by 25 percent, to a low of 33 out of every 1,000 girls in 2003. South Carolina had one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the Southeast.

Teen pregnancies are an economic drain on the nation. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy estimates that, nationwide, pregnant teens cost taxpayers more than $9 billion a year in foster care, child care and the increased potential for incarceration.

The estimated cost to South Carolina is about $151 million a year. Broken down, that includes $39 million for public health care; $6 million for child welfare; $29 million for incarceration; and $51 million for lost tax revenue due to decreased earning and spending.

If this program prevents even a few pregnancies each year, it is likely to save the state far more than the $400,000 it spends each year.

The program's providers, many of them working in schools, use the money to counsel and educate children about family planning, goal-setting, how to refuse advances and other skills. Many also offer services such as homework assistance and after-school programs.

It takes a broad-based approach like that to make inroads. While teaching girls how not to become pregnant, we also must help keep them in school and on track to employment after graduation.

Cutting this program is shortsighted. We'll pay more down the road -- and the lives of hundreds of young girls who could have been led along a different path instead will be stunted by unwanted pregnancy.