California may be in trouble. An unprecedented decline in California’s child population is not the only problem the state faces. A tidal wave of baby boom retirees also complicates its population prospects. These two factors will put the state’s future prosperity in jeopardy, according to findings in a report released this week.
In 1970, children made up 33 percent of California’s population. But by 2030 they’re expected to comprise only 21 percent, according to the new report based on 2010 census data by the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health.
The growing imbalance between children and retirees puts a major burden on each child. In fact, the economic role of a child born in 2015 will be twice as significant as a child born in 1985, the report suggests.
“These trends are not yet widely recognized, but they should be a wake-up call for policymakers,” said report author Dowell Myers, professor of policy and demography and director of the Population Dynamics Research Group at USC. “We will be increasingly dependent economically and socially on a smaller number of children. They are more important to the state’s future success than ever before.”
Why fewer children?
Why exactly is California’s child population shrinking? Far-reaching demographic changes, including declining birth rates, fewer newcomers to the state and a smaller population of women of childbearing age all play a role, according to Myers.
The state’s birth rate has declined in every major racial and ethnic group since 2000. It has fallen below what demographers call the necessary “replacement level” of 2.1 births per woman. The decline in California’s children coincides with the expected retirements of the state’s over-65 population whom these children will replace as workers, taxpayers, voters and consumers.
California’s demographic shift is echoed in other US states, such as New York, Illinois, Michigan and Massachusetts.
Child trends impact future
The report points out two other child trends that may strongly influence the state’s future. First, a rise in the “homegrown” population is a sharp reversal from previous decades. Census data reveals that more than 90 percent of today’s children under age 10 were born in California. California has historically relied on newcomers from other states and countries for its workforce, but that trend is in decline. The state will increasingly need to rely on the skills and abilities of its native-born children.
That means that California needs to prioritize those children.
“The majority of the next generation of workers will have been shaped by California’s health and education systems,” Myers said. “It’s essential that we nurture our human capital.”
Considering the importance of the child population to California, the second significant trend is particularly troubling. Many of those future California workers will have grown up in poverty. More than 20 percent of children in California now live below the federal poverty level.
Poverty rates are twice as high among California children as adults, the report says. Poverty can limit children’s access to food, housing, health care and education. That hinders their development and restricts their potential.
Other key findings
- Since 1970, California has averaged about 21 seniors per 100 working age adults. By 2030, that ratio will likely rise to 36 seniors per 100 working age adults.
- California’s children are highly diverse. The largest group are Hispanic or Latino origin (51.2 percent). Non-Hispanic whites are the second largest group (27.4 percent), followed by Asian and Pacific Islanders (10.7 percent), African Americans (5.6 percent) and all others (5.1 percent).
- Migration to the state has been greatly reduced over the past 20 years. That pattern is expected to continue.
- Nearly half of school-age children are growing up in households where English is not the primary language. Many of these children will have bilingual skills that will prove valuable. But in the short term they and their families may require tailored social, health, and educational services.
- In 2010, 16 percent of children were living in households headed by a single mother. They were more likely to experience economic hardship.
- Children are growing up in increasingly varied types of households. Nearly two-thirds of children still live in households headed by married couples, but that percentage has decreased in recent decades.
California’s population trends warn the rest of the nation that there’s no time to wait to institute sensible economic priorities in a period of economic instability. Unless the nation invests in its children, its prospects of a rosy economic future are poor.
The United States spends more on prisons than on education. Moreover, the US is first in the world in military spending, allotting more on military than the next 15 nations combined. These resources drain the treasury coffers of money for health, food, infrastructure maintenance and environmental welfare.
Reversing child poverty needs to be a US priority. The poverty rate of children in the US is soon expected to reach 25 percent, 1 out of every 4, an intolerable statistic in what is arguably one of the wealthiest nations in history. Focusing on augmenting early childhood education and adequate funding of public education will be critical to support the academic assets these children—our future workers and taxpayers—will need.
To take a clear look at our future, we need but take a serious look at our children.