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JOSÉ LUIS VILLEGAS / jvillegas@sacbee.com

Michelle Schlenker, 30, holds newborn Mia on Wednesday at Sutter Memorial Hospital in Sacramento. By having a baby, Schlenker went against a striking trend in the state's birthrate.

California birthrate lowest since Great Depression, state data show

Published: Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 - 7:26 am

California's birthrate tumbled last year to its lowest point since the Great Depression, new state figures show, yet another indication that the difficult economy is reshaping everyday life.

California families are looking at their personal finances, their job security, their prospects for the future – and increasingly deciding now is not the time to have a baby.

Marriages are down, foreclosures are up, job openings are scarce and kids are expensive. The average cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 is about $225,000, federal data show.

"A lot of the people I see say, 'One (child) is enough: It's all I can afford,' " said Anna Peak, owner of Babies & Beyond, a children's-goods store in the Land Park section of Sacramento.

Other, more permanent changes also are taking place. The children of immigrants are having fewer kids than their parents did. The population as a whole is getting older. Couples are waiting longer to start families.

Because of those patterns, the state will see strikingly low birthrates for the rest of the decade, said John Malson, acting chief of the state Department of Finance's demographic research unit.

Last year for the first time, California women gave birth at a rate that, over their lifetimes, would produce fewer than two births apiece, Malson said. In other words, they weren't producing enough children to replace the parents.

Total births will increase slightly starting this year, but only because California will have more women of childbearing age, according to a state report released Tuesday.

About 512,000 children were born in the state during 2010, down 3 percent from 2009 and 10 percent from 2007, according to state Department of Public Health numbers released this month. Those figures translate to 13.7 births per 1,000 residents.

The state's birthrate hasn't been that low since 1935, when, during the Great Depression, would-be parents also had a gloomy view of the future. Financial pessimism often precedes low birthrates, several demographers said.

Even taking into account the aging of California's population, the changes last year were stark: About 65 of every 1,000 women of childbearing age had kids in 2010, down from 73 per 1,000 in 2007.

The Sacramento area also posted sharp declines: The 27,900 births in the capital region last year represented a 2 percent drop from 2009 and a 9 percent drop from 2007.

Latinos, particularly those under 25, are driving the trend. Latinos still have higher birthrates than other ethnic groups in California, but the gap is shrinking rapidly. In three years, the number of Latino births in California has fallen by 13 percent – twice the rate of decline among other ethnic groups.

The birthrate among young California Latinos has fallen by more than 20 percent since 2007, a seismic shift that normally takes decades.

Unlike their parents, many California Latinos were born in the United States and "fertility drops between the first and second generation of immigrants," said Roberto Suro, director of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California.

Birthrates also are falling throughout Latin America, noted David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA. Both there and in California, the Latino population is moving from rural farms to urban areas.

"Parents don't feel the need to have kids to help with work," he said.

All of these trends across all ethnic groups will have lasting consequences, several demographers said.

At the personal level, the proverbial biological clock will constrain families putting off having children.

"The problem with delaying is that when a woman gets past 30, gradually and then significantly her fertility drops off," said Dr. Bill Gilbert, medical director for Sutter Women's Services in the Sacramento region. "Biology is one thing you can't argue with."

Children born to mothers over age 40 are also at higher risk for certain health problems, including autism.

On the other hand, children born during this baby bust could have an easier time in life, as they might face less competition when applying for colleges and jobs.

More broadly, the declines eventually will impact schools as fewer kindergartners enroll. Painful school closings will follow, but the state will also save a chunk of money, since school funding is based on enrollment.

"It will ease some of the pressure on the schools," said Jacqueline Carrigan, a sociology professor at California State University, Sacramento, noting that the trend of growing class sizes might dissipate.

Baby busts – and booms – are often cyclical, so, when this generation of newborns reaches childbearing age, there is a greater chance of an "echo" baby bust affecting future generations, said Hans Johnson, the Bren Policy Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. That's happening to some extent now.

Depending on myriad factors, there also could be less stress on infrastructure, a smaller tax base, a dearth of workers, less demand for large houses, fewer day care centers – the list goes on.

Still, Johnson and Carrigan said it's important not to overstate the impact of this bust, despite its historic breadth. The state continues to grow, albeit more slowly, from immigration and natural increase.

"We are not becoming the next Germany or Japan, where the number of deaths exceeds the number of births," Johnson said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Phillip Reese



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