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Birth rates are declining in California. Here’s why experts think it's happening

A visitor wears a face mask while pushing a stroller on the pier amid the coronavirus pandemic Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in the Manhattan Beach section of Los Angeles.
Marcio Jose Sanchez
AP Photo
A visitor wears a face mask while pushing a stroller on the pier amid the coronavirus pandemic Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in the Manhattan Beach section of Los Angeles.

California’s birth rate is at its lowest level in roughly 100 years, according to a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California.

According to the January report, the number of births hit a peak in 1992 at roughly 613,000 children born. Now, more than 30 years later, that number dropped by nearly a third to 420,000. Authors called the trend “a new baby bust.”

The report also found that birth and marriage rates have taken an “especially sharp” decline among young people. Teen births also dropped, but authors noted they were not frequent enough to affect larger trends.

The numbers may not seem significant now, but in the decades to come, the decline can have significant consequences for society and the economy, the report’s authors wrote.

“Fewer children will mean declining K-12 enrollment and more school closures,” the report reads. “Longer term, it will weaken demand for infrastructure, including housing and transportation. It will also mean fewer working-age adults to care for an aging senior population.”

Authors did point out, however, that lower birth rates could “spur environmental gains that accrue from a lower population.”

Experts say economic, financial and cultural shifts all play a factor in the complicated decision to have — or not have — children. CapRadio’s Vicki Gonzalez sat down with Henry Gonzalez, Sacramento State professor of Family Studies and Human Development, and Jordan Davidson, Editorial Director of Health.com and author of “So When Are You Having Kids?” to help understand the numbers and what they mean.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On what’s coming up in conversations around deciding to have children

Davidson: It's a very personal and individualized decision. The major themes that I heard among people who were apprehensive were things like financial difficulties: People feel like they don't have job security, who are paying student loans, who have debt, who just don't feel like they financially can afford having children.

And then there is the cost of health care and child care right now … In California, the average cost of daycare is nearly $300 a week. It's not a small cost in deciding to have children. That really concerns people, that not only will they not be able to afford having children, but that it would severely disadvantage them and their current financial standing.

Gonzalez: Theory teaches us that young adults are responsive, just like anyone else, to their environment. A lot of them are feeling the pressures of the financial volatility of their lives, [and] also the costs of living in California and other parts of the country. College education — these four to six years that they're spending their time in their 20s — are helping [young adults] delay these important life choices. In essence, it's helping them make an informed decision about whether they're going to make a commitment to this long-term choice. As Jordan mentioned, it's a very costly choice, but also one that is going to alter their family life in the future. And a lot of the students are thinking about it, but not yet making that choice.

On similar trends in marriage rates

Gonzalez: Many [young adults] are considering getting married. They're not doing it now, but they will do so later in their twenties. Some are even thinking about waiting until their thirties … [Marriage] used to be a milestone for young adults in their twenties. Now this milestone seems to be pushed to early thirties, late twenties, and then waiting to have children thereafter — and that's if they decide if they're going to have children. Family is being redefined today [more] than it ever was before, where a family doesn't necessarily have to involve children.

On discussions around child care

Davidson: There's a lot of concerns about the availability of child care and the cost of child care. And I think that people are really apprehensive about how they're going to care for their children in a two parent household when they both have to work.

On religion and the decision to have children

Davidson: Religiosity is one of the greatest predictors of whether people will have children. And it's not necessarily tied to a specific faith or denomination, but typically people of faith who strongly practice a religion are more likely to have children, and multiple children, and so the lowest birth rate is actually among people who identify as atheist. In states where you have a higher population of people who practice a specific religion, you tend to see higher birth rates. But in states that tend to be more secular, the birth rate can be lower.

Gonzalez: It seems like even in the regional side of things, not just religiosity, in urban centers such as in the Bay Area or even Southern California, San Diego, Los Angeles … we're finding that secular young adults are less likely to have children or simply have fewer children if they choose to do so. Well, in counties that tend to be much more rural and religious, such as the Inland Empire or even Tulare County, for example, have more children.

On high U.S. maternal mortality rates

Davidson: That was something that I heard a lot from the Black women who I interviewed for the book, that they were concerned about the maternal mortality rate. Public figures like Beyoncé and Serena Williams have come out and said that they had traumatic experiences in their pregnancy and birthing experiences and that there is no income or level of celebrity that can protect you and make sure that you survive pregnancy. Birthing is really something that weighs heavy on Black birthing people.

On environmental issues and the decision to have children

Davidson: I was surprised by how many young people were factoring in the environment in their decisions. Most of the people who I spoke to who felt the most strongly about this were from West Coast states, especially California, [who are] seeing wildfires and climate events happening.

Gonzalez: Many of our students are very environmentally conscious nowadays. They're seeing wildfires, other natural catastrophes, and they're realizing that there's a lot of economic uncertainty.

On what people should make of the decline in California birth rates

Gonzalez: Adults today are making very informed choices for themselves, what fits with their lifestyle and what family life they would like to have, whether it's a decision to get married or have kids. It's a response to the environment that they're living in … a wedding, childbirth, childbearing and raising a child can be very costly. A lot of adults have to understand that this may just be the reality for not just today, but possibly for the future.

Davidson: Our society places a high value on having children and endorses having kids as a key part of adulthood. But in practice, our society acts in a lot of opposite ways because we don't have sufficient support systems for parents: There is no paid maternal leave, we don't have any sort of nationwide universal child care. There needs to be [a] foundational level of support if we want to see people having more children. It's very difficult to say people need to have more children from an economic or societal perspective, because I think that there's a lot of things that we need to fix to make people feel more comfortable and confident in their decision to have kids.

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