Why ask why?

Consider this a cautionary editorial about news stories that describe social trends and how percentages are skewed to make numbers that mean little or nothing appear to symbolize complex issues.

Last week, the larger of the two local dailies ran an Associated Press story headlined, “Study: Nevada leads nation for teens with multiple babies.”

Seems fairly self-explanatory, doesn’t it? The story talked about a report by a group called Child Trends, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, that showed Nevada tied with Texas for the highest number of women under 20 with more than one child.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. The results of the study, which are downloadable at www.childtrends.org and called “2003 Facts at a Glance,” actually included a lot of other things that paint a murkier picture of how Nevada has hit the bottom on yet another social scale, and it may illustrate the way toward moving us up the ladder.

In Nevada, in 2001, there were 3,740 total births to mothers under age 20.

According to the study, there were 1,324 white babies born; 474 black babies born; and 1,684 Hispanic babies born. Of all the births in the state, 12 percent were to women under age 20. Around 77 percent of these mothers were unmarried.

Notice anything? That is, anything besides that women only seem to come in three colors? While all those numbers seem high, the number of Hispanic women under 20 giving birth is extraordinary.

According to 2000 U.S. Census data, Hispanics make up 19.7 percent of the total population of Nevada. Assuming all other things remained equal, it could be predicted that Hispanic women under 20 would have about one-fifth the number of babies born to black or white women—about 350 babies, not 1,684.

The problem is “all other things” never remain equal. And that’s why the AP story (and this editorial, for that matter), say very little about what’s really going on, and what causes the result of 25 percent of Nevadan teenage women who give birth having more than one child.

Are there cultural reasons that would have Hispanic teenage women giving birth in such high numbers? Do Hispanic women, for example, generally subscribe to a religion that neither advocates birth control nor abortion? Are Hispanic women more likely to get an abstinence-only education and thus ill-equipped to deal with issues of birth control? Is it culturally acceptable to have babies at a younger age for Hispanic women? What percentage of the women in this study were in high school, high school dropouts or in college? What was the average household income for these women?

If the foggiest of magnifying glasses is held up to this study, it’s easy to tell that there is more here than has met the media eye. The one thing that can be taken away is that when a single number is pulled out of a study to symbolize a social trend for an entire state in a news story, skeptical readers should take a second look at the study.