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 demographer Dowell Myers. "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.
Changing behaviors and economic shifts are driving down the number of babies, but no one cause easily explains 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.
Couples who wait to have children have fewer or no kids. Contraceptives are increasingly accepted and available. And Latino families, who have had higher birthrates, are shrinking.
The statewide fertility rate has slipped below 2.1 children in a lifetime, the rate that replaces the population, to 1.94 children, a trend usually associated with Japan and Europe.
San Jose elementary schoolteacher 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, said Myers, 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 of the University of Southern California.
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 the report Myers released last week with the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health.
Another reason for fewer babies is a short supply of parent-age people, too few "20-somethings and early 30-somethings," Myers said. "That's fewer parents, and fewer babies" than in previous generations.
Children made up a third of California's population in 1970, but Myers projects that by 2030 they will comprise 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.
The number of children in poverty is both growing and underestimated, his report says. Poverty restricts access to the food, health care, education and housing that children need to develop their potential, and a failure to ease it endangers everyone's future if children reach adulthood with weaker resources and skills, he said.
Sattari understands why her friends are forgoing kids. She shares their "fear of the unknown, of how I'm going to raise kids, how I'm going to pay for their college when I'm still paying off my own college."
Still, she said she and her husband, a biochemist, are making it work.
A Mountain View resident echoed Sattari's financial concerns.
"I can't say I know one person who is having children who isn't having some type of financial difficulty," said Laura Browne. "It's too much of a financial burden ... and I don't want my child to be raised by someone else, or by a TV or an iPad."
Speech therapist Carlin Graveline gave birth to her second child in August and is, as she turns 30 this month, the youngest mom she knows in her Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose.
"In the Bay Area, it's hard to have kids, and it's hard to have multiple kids," she said. "You don't typically hear a lot of parents say, 'No, we don't want anymore.' It's 'No, we can't afford more.'"
Graveline worries about how the declining child population will affect her baby and 4-year-old.
"There's less children to compete with" for schools and later jobs, she said.
But, she said, "we have fewer children to rely on, to have the responsibility of being those future leaders and taking care of us.
"It's going to be a heavy load on their shoulders for a smaller population to be taking care of an older population."
The Lucile Packard Foundation for Childrens' Health report, "California's Diminishing Resource: Children," is on the web at bit.ly/UVZBix