California’s kid shortage

Not long ago, California was the land of the young. Migration from other states, immigration from other countries and the Baby Boom came together to send the state’s population of children soaring. Those children, and the young adults they became, personified a culture that seemed nothing short of obsessed with youth.

That’s all changing.

California’s population is aging rapidly, so quickly that the state now faces what was once unthinkable: a shortage of children.

The lack of children is not a worry by itself. It’s what that shortage portends for the future: a slowly growing or even shrinking population without enough working people to grow the economy or shoulder the load of services demanded by older adults.

These are among the concerns raised by recent U.S. Census numbers highlighted in a report by Dowell Myers, a University of Southern California demographer who has spent much of his life studying trends in California’s population.

Myers notes that the ratio of seniors to the working-age people in California held steady for about 40 years — at around 20 seniors for every 100 working age adults.

The number of births in California actually peaked decades ago, in 1970. But the state’s population was still relatively young, with few seniors, so the peak in births went largely unnoticed. The overall population continued to grow as births outnumbered deaths and newcomers, many with children, arrived from elsewhere.

But then birth rates began to decline, even for recent immigrants. Migration slowed. Baby boomers grew old.

In raw numbers, California’s population of children under age 10 dropped by nearly 200,000 between 2000 and 2010, even as the overall population continued to creep upward. Their percentage of the population declined from 13.5 percent to 12.1 percent in just ten years.

And just as suddenly the ratio of seniors to working people began to climb, only the beginning of what will be the demographic story of the next 20 years. Myers calculates that the number will hit 36 seniors-per-100 working age people by 2030. That means each working person between the ages of 25 and 64 will have to support – directly or indirectly – nearly twice as many elders as they do today.

“Before, we had so many kids we thought they were an expensive burden,” Myers told me in a recent conversation. “Now the tables are turned. We have too few kids. Not simply because they are declining in number but because the number of seniors is mushrooming way out proportion.”

This should be of concern not just to folks who might depend on government aid in retirement. Anyone hoping to sell a house to help support themselves later in life should take notice: there might not be anyone around to buy it.

More broadly, economic growth is helped along by population growth. Without more people, each person who remains has to be more productive to maintain the same level of overall economic output. Otherwise California faces a downward spiral similar to what we now see happening in Europe.

But that increased productivity depends on a well educated workforce, and there is no guarantee that California will have one. An increasing number of kids are living in poverty, attending failing schools and are at risk of dropping out and never making it into the mainstream economy. Despite near double-digit unemployment, California already has plenty of jobs left vacant because employers can’t find qualified applicants. If we don’t do something soon, that problem is going to grow even worse.

Historically California has filled many of its jobs and fueled its growth with migrants from other states and other countries. From the Gold Rush until very recently, a majority of California’s population was born outside the state. But that’s no longer the case, and we’re not going back. The rest of the country is facing or soon will be facing many of the same demographic realities. Their best and brightest are going to have plenty of opportunities where they were born and raised and little incentive to come here.

Fortunately, the same numbers that point to a potential crisis can also lead us toward a solution. With public school enrollment numbers dropping, every dollar we’re spending now on schools –and every additional dollar we can spend in the future — can go farther. That will help reduce the gap between what California has been spending per child on education and the average in the rest of the nation. The same will soon be true for community colleges and our four-year universities.

And at least in the short term, as the economy recovers and begins to grow again, increased spending on schools can be focused on those children whose family circumstances make them least likely to succeed. That’s where you get the biggest bang for the taxpayer buck: by providing support, better materials, extra tutoring and all the other things that kids from middle-class and wealthy families get at home.

But the politics are difficult. People tend to care less about the schools, and educating children, once their own children are grown. And with more and more voters either not having kids or having children who have long since left the public schools, public support for education spending might dwindle in the years ahead.

That’s why it’s important for today’s middle-aged folks and seniors to realize that California’s future depends more than ever on maximizing the potential of every state resident.

It’s not just about them. It’s about all of us.

To see the full report, go here.

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