Children play in Inglewood, Calif. Child population declined in 35 states between 2017 and 2022, and California had the biggest drop. (Araya Doheny/Getty Images)
By Tim Henderson
Thirty-five states have fewer children than they did five years ago, a situation caused by declining birth rates nationwide, but also by young families migrating across state borders in search of cheaper housing.
Even in the 15 states that gained children, all but North Dakota experienced greater growth in the adult population, meaning children now make up a lower percentage of residents.
In states where the number of children has declined, school officials are facing the possibility of teacher layoffs or even school closures when pandemic aid expires next year. A decline in school enrollment could provide short-term cost savings and might be a benefit to children if there are more resources to go around, but it bodes poorly for future state workforces.
In states where the drop in the number of children is part of a broader population decline, there will be additional fiscal, economic and political ramifications, such as diminished representation in Congress.
The states with the largest drops were California, Illinois and New Mexico, where the child population declined by 6% between 2017 and 2022, according to a Stateline analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Idaho and North Dakota saw the largest increases, at 4%.
The declines mostly are a reflection of historically low fertility rates, which have been below the replacement rate of two children per woman since 2010. Births increased in only a handful of states in 2021.
But in the 35 states that experienced declines, high housing prices also are a factor. In California, jobs pay well but the state’s housing shortage has sent prices beyond the means of young families, said Hans Johnson, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank.
“People want to buy a house and have children, but they realize they can’t do it here so they look in the vicinity, states close by, and work remotely so they can keep their California paychecks,” Johnson said.
Slow population growth cost California a seat in Congress after the 2020 census. The number of adults in California grew in the past five years, according to the Stateline analysis, but the decline in the number of children led to a lower overall population.
California also has experienced a phenomenon shared by other Western states: The children of Hispanic immigrants have lower birth rates than their parents. California’s total fertility rate dropped from 2.15 per woman in 2008 to a historic low of 1.52 in 2020, the lowest since records have been kept, Johnson wrote in a January report.
California, Illinois and New Mexico all have seen lower school enrollment in recent years, even as they’ve tried to rekindle interest in public education after pandemic upheavals.
In New Mexico, enrollment has dropped particularly sharply in the northwestern part of the state, where there are many Indigenous students, according to a January state report. Between 2012 and 2022, enrollment declined by 22% in the majority-Native Central Consolidated Schools in San Juan County, compared with a statewide decline of 7%, according to the report. Indigenous and other children in the mostly rural area struggle to stay in school because of long bus commutes and lack of internet access at home.
The recent closure of a coal mine and the power generating station it fueled forced many families with children to move away from San Juan County to find jobs, according to Central Consolidated school board President Christina Aspaas.
“A lot of Navajo workers who were employed had to relocate to Phoenix or elsewhere out of state to earn the same wages,” Aspaas said. “It affected the local tribes, Hopi and Navajo, Diné. Seeing the impacts makes my heart break. These are all my children, and they deserve the best in education and in life.”
In Idaho and North Dakota, annual school enrollment has increased over the past five years, except for temporary drops early in the pandemic. But Idaho is bracing for a decline starting in 2025, when children from a historic 2007 baby boom in the state start turning 18.
Idaho has become known as a picturesque and affordable place to raise children, said Jaap Vos, a planning professor at the University of Idaho in Boise. He relocated from Florida with his 3-year-old son in 2012, “when it was still the middle of nowhere,” he said. The number of adults in the state grew by 16% during the same period.
Boise is getting a lot of new residents from California, and northern Idaho is seeing more movers from Northern California, Washington and Utah. “It might be for ideological reasons, people looking for a more conservative lifestyle,” Vos said. He added that some people have left Boise as it has grown more crowded.
Even in northern Idaho, housing prices have risen rapidly.
Writer Leah Hampton is moving from North Carolina to Moscow in northern Idaho to teach at the University of Idaho. But she said she is having trouble finding an affordable house — even without children. Her husband is working remotely.
“Moscow is definitely a great place to raise kids. It’s like a 1950s movie up here but more diverse and left wing,” Hampton said. “All of my friends’ children seem really happy and well-adjusted. But cost of living is much higher than we expected. We have money and we literally can’t find anything to buy.”
Many houses are sold sight unseen to investors offering cash, she said.
Another fast-growing state with meager growth in the number of children is Florida, where a decrease in births and an increase in deaths over the past five years has created a negative drag on overall population, according to census estimates. The state had almost 25,000 more births than deaths in 2017, but there were 40,000 more deaths than births by 2022.
Still, Florida had the third-highest increase in child population between 2017 and 2022, at 2%. One reason: Hispanic births in Florida have continued to increase, unlike in Western states, said Stefan Rayer, director of the population program at the state Bureau of Economic and Business Research. In fact, births are increasing for white, Black and Hispanic mothers in Florida, helping to offset some of the increasing deaths among the white population, Rayer said.
“Unless births increase substantially, because of the aging of Florida’s population, the state will likely see natural decrease for the foreseeable future, with all growth coming from migration,” Rayer said.
Reporter Tim Henderson wrote this story for Stateline, a branch of States Newsroom, which supports the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
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