California is losing its children.
After decades of simultaneously worrying about and cashing in on its ever-growing population, the Golden State now awaits a new challenge: too few children and, eventually, too few skilled and able-bodied workers.
"Kids are no longer overrunning us. Now they're in short supply," said Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California. "It changes the priorities for the state."
The number of California babies born each year began dropping steadily in 2007, according to state public health records, but the birthrate began slowing years before.
From 2002 to 2011, there was a statewide decrease in births of 5 percent.
Around Southern California, the trend can be seen across many counties. Los Angeles County saw a nearly 14 percent decrease in births in the same time period.
Within the county, similar declines were seen in San Gabriel Valley and in the South Bay.
Long Beach saw the number of live births decline quickly -- by 7 percent -- in just three years.
In the San Fernando Valley, from 2005 to 2010 the birthrate dropped from 13.5 births per 1,000 residents to 12.2 births per 1,000.
Changing behaviors and economic shifts are driving down the number of babies born, but no one cause can easily explain the trend, said state demographer Walter Schwarm. The recession's uncertainty delayed births, but so did women's economic gains that raise the cost of staying out of work.
A knot of variables have come into play, agreed Suzanne Bostwick, interim director for the Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health Programs for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, who added that her staff could not pinpoint a reason as well.
"Children are expensive so couples delay getting pregnant if their financial situation is bleak," she said in an email response. The recession may have accelerated the decline in birthrates, but birthrates were already declining prior to the recession, she said.
Bostwick also noted there has been a large drop in the number of women of childbearing age, those between 20 and 49, in Los Angeles County between 2000 and 2010. The largest decline was seen among foreign-born Hispanic women, who have the highest fertility rate. And she said younger women are having fewer children, but older women are having more. The accessibility of contraception also is a factor, she added. The overall decline means fewer children sitting in elementary school desks, which has a ripple effect statewide on those already in the workforce.
San Jose elementary school teacher Desiree Sattari recently lost her job because of declining first-grade enrollment. Now, the 31-year-old stays home caring for her two children, one a 4-month-old, but she and her husband sometimes feel like outliers.
"I'm in my 30s and most of my friends haven't married yet, haven't had kids yet. They're more career-driven," Sattari said.
Older parenthood to accommodate advanced schooling and careers is just one of many drivers of a declining birthrate in California, along with the economic downturn and unemployment, Myers said, but the changes are also part of a global trend.
From Mexico to India and parts of Africa, birthrates around the world are tumbling. Births among all women of childbearing age dropped by 8 percent in the United States since 2007, and by 14 percent among immigrant women, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.
Another study revealed that California birthrates are falling in all racial and ethnic groups, but most dramatically for Latinas. Only their birthrate comes near the replacement level, and without them, the state's birthrate would be much lower and the shortage of children would grow more severe, according to research by Myers.
Still, not all states follow the same pattern.
The child population grew rapidly in Texas, Florida and Georgia over the past decade even as it declined steeply in New York, Michigan and California, according to a report Myers released recently with the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health.
Children made up a third of California's population in 1970, but Myers projects that by 2030 they will compose just a fifth.
"It's a time problem, getting people to think about what's going to happen 10 years from now, 20 years from now," Myers said.
But not all places are seeing decreases. There were 3,919 more children born in Riverside County in 2010 compared with almost a decade ago, according to the most recent data. And in San Bernardino, there were almost 1,000 more within the same time period.
At Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, hospital officials there say they have the busiest maternity ward in all of the San Fernando Valley, with 4,000 births a year. The staff there recently named their maternity unit Little Treasures, reflecting the idea that parents should feel like each child born there is a valuable, precious gem.
At Valley Presbyterian on a recent day, Diana Covarrubias cuddled newborn Levi in her arms, while her three other children, ages 5, 4 and 3, surrounded her.
"He was kind of a surprise," said Covarrubias, 28. "Even though the economy isn't that great, there was still no reason for us to wait. We felt we could make it."
Her husband, Victor Covarrubias, has just completed courses to become a licensed vocational nurse, and she too plans to work in the health field when the children are older.
Down the hall, Eliza Truman, 22, said her newborn daughter Keyaira Amaya's birth was somewhat planned.
"I had my first when I was 17, and I wanted to wait five years," said Truman, a paralegal who would like to go onto law school one day.
Truman said she has friends who are putting off having children to go to school or wait until the economy improves.
"I have friends who ask me, how are you going to do it," she said. "I tell them, well, my baby is here. I'll figure it out. You have to make children your responsibility. You need to make it work, and I will."
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