- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

D.C. officials yesterday credited a city program promoting abstinence and safe sex with drastically lowering the rate of abortions and out-of-wedlock births, which also earned the city a $25 million federal bonus.

The decreases were the largest in the nation, with births to unwed mothers dropping by 6.6 percent between 1999 and 2002 and the abortion rate plummeting by more than half from 1995 to 2002.

“This in a city with one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the country is a real accomplishment,” Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday at his weekly press briefing.

The drop in out-of-wedlock births without a corresponding increase in the abortion rate qualified the District for a $25 million bonus from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The city has received the money each of the six years the federal program — an outgrowth of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 — has been in effect, netting the District a total of $140 million for social service programs.

Maryland, New Hampshire and New York also received the bonus this year, which is contingent upon a lower abortion rate. In Maryland, the abortion rate decreased by about 25 percent from 1995 to 2002.

“Reducing out-of-wedlock births is an achievement that deserves reward, and I congratulate these states and the District of Columbia for setting a good example for other states to follow,” said HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson when he announced the bonuses last week.

“The Bush administration encourages all states to continue to develop programs, especially those that stress abstinence, that will have a positive effect on encouraging marriage and the formation of stable families,” Mr. Thompson said.

Kate Jesberg, administrator for the D.C. Department of Human Services’ Income Maintenance Administration, yesterday said the city’s gains were the direct result of the agency’s “Be on the Safe Side” campaign.

The program delivered the abstinence and safe-sex message with radio spots and widespread distribution of a musical CD, and through community groups, such as Covenant House and Catholic Charities, that work one-on-one with could-be mothers.

“It’s a mixed message,” Ms. Jesberg said. “It is both abstinence and safe sex if they are already engaged in sex. … We don’t particularly talk about sex, per se; we find that engaging people in an ongoing program actually serves to allow them to delay sex.”

The campaign targets sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, which Ms. Jesberg said are the best age groups for intervention. “We focused on teens, and it has been a very large-scale and sustained effort. And we’ve seen the decrease from that,” she said.

The federal bonuses are awarded based on two-year averages for out-of-wedlock births. In the District, the rate fell by 6.6 percent over the past four years, from 61 percent in 1999-2000 to 56.9 in 2001-2002.

The city averages 7,500 births per year.

“Very clearly, here we are on a downward trend, and that’s a good thing,” Ms. Jesberg said.

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