Two unrelated stories caught my eye, and I thought them interesting enough to share. I'm willing to bet you have examples of such local action in your region. The first deals with my hometown (and current place of residence), the charming Hennepin County in Minnesota. The second comes from that bastion of fun and civilization among Iowa's corn- and soybean fields, Iowa City (where I lived for a lovely summer while on a biochemistry fellowship).
Imagine no teen pregnancy, I wonder if you can...1
Named after Belgian explorer (under the patronage of the king of France) Father Louis Hennepin, it is the most populous county in the state and contains the state's most populous city, Minneapolis. Approximately 24 percent of the population is under the age of 18, and the overall teenage birth rate, about 32 per 1,000 girls, is slightly higher than the state average, about 27 per 1,000 girls (and the numbers are even higher among minority groups). Within the county, the teen birth rate shoots as high as 64 per 1,000 in Brooklyn Center and Richfield.
The past administration's stance on abstinence only sex education (which clearly works, right, Bristol Palin?) has long frustrated efforts to get funding for strategies that actually work and are evidence-based, but a recent federal grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides a glimmer of hope - a $17 million grant, or about $3.4 million each year for the next five years - was awarded to Hennepin County to reduce teenage pregnancy by providing kids both sex education and life skills training. The money will allow eight schools to provide eighth- and ninth-graders with life skills education through a curriculum called the Teen Outreach Program. The article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune says:
The estimated 13,000 kids who are expected participate will be required to perform 20 hours of volunteer work per week and take a class discussing goals, life choices and healthy relationships.
The grant also provides funding to offer the Safer Sex Program to an estimated 14,000 kids through the Teen Annex, the West Suburban Teen Clinic and other metro community clinics. The grants will allow them to hire counselors trained in effective ways to teach sexually active teenagers about contraceptives, disease prevention and avoiding risky behavior.
Our ridiculous governor Tim Pawlenty (who has been instructing state agencies to reject any federal funding for programs that he doesn't agree with, like anything Rush Limbaugh is against) rejected an $850,000 no-strings-attached federal grant for statewide teen pregnancy prevention. Instead, he allowed the Department of Health to apply for a $500,000 abstinence-only grant. Way to go, Timmy.
Hennepin County circumvented the moral authority on high and used actual evidence in the application for the grant - a study of 10,000 kids who participated in Teen Outreach Program found that they were half as likely to become pregnant as those who didn't participate. And studies of the Safe Sex Program found that those who
got the counseling engaged in less risky behavior. Only time will tell if the grants pays off in reducing teen birth rates in the county, but I'm hopeful that the money will be well-spent.
In eastern Iowa, about 2 hours east of Des Moines, is the lovely town of Iowa City. It may surprise you to know that Iowa City is tied with Stamford, CT, as U.S. metropolitan area with the highest percentage of the adult population holding a bachelor's degree or higher. As the location of the University of Iowa, it comes with the pros of being a college town - a LOT of the arts and culture world is featured prominently here, including the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop (it is part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network). But you get the cons, too, like massive underage drinking problems. According to the mayor, college students in Iowa City binge drink at more than twice the national average for college campuses.
Interestingly, kids 18-20 can get in to bars for music shows. (This is true - I remember when I lived there that my 18-year-old cousin was able to accompany me [I was 21] to a bar for a late-night show). This, naturally, led to underage kids having access to alcohol, says the mayor in an NPR article:
"The scene downtown was ridiculous. I mean, we had people throwing up all over the place, fights, cops were always there," he says. "Half of all 911 calls in the downtown area were alcohol related and 19-year-olds were the most frequent victims. [It was] just an out of control situation, and it's abnormal even compared to other college towns."The city council passed a law this summer, strongly supported by the university, that after 10 pm you have to be 21 to enter a bar. An unintended side effect of this law is that attendance at music shows that extend past 10 pm has dropped. The mayor acknowledges that some kids may have chosen to go elsewhere to drink, but the ordinance has curtailed the craziness downtown.
The part that I really like about this story is what comes next - the city council realizes that a drop in music show attendance means a drop in profits for the community and a drop in the ability to draw major acts to the area. So, they're working on two follow-up ordinances to reach a compromise. The first is to separate the dry (underage) and wet (21+) areas of a bar during a show so that under-21 kids can still attend. (This could pose a problem as this would likely only work in larger spaces, and many venues aren't big enough to do this.) The second provides an exception to the law for "entertainment venues." An entertainment venue is defined as having "a dedicated stage, with professionally installed lighting and sound that holds live performances (including comedians and poetry readings, but not DJs) 150 nights a year. The venue must have salaried employees whose job it is to book acts, and a portion of the door proceeds must be
shared with the artist." This would allow 19- and 20-year-olds to attend shows at bars until midnight, at which point they'd have to leave (but many shows end by then anyway).
I think this is a fair compromise, and shows that the city council is actually considering what is best for the community. The mayor said:
"Number one, music is a huge part of our culture locally, and number two, it's not an area that has been associated with illegal underage drinking. People don't pay the cover to see a band and then start taking Jello shots in the corner. So because these music venues have not historically been a problem for underage drinking, we didn't want to throw the baby out with the bath water."A tip of the hat to solving problems creatively and with everyone in mind.
1 Apologies to John Lennon. But, maybe if he had written a few more verses, he would have used these lyrics.
2 Dar Williams. It was this or Joni Mitchell's "The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines." There is a dearth of songs about Iowa, sorry.