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Utah's baby bust

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 9/22/2021 Timothy P. Carney
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SALT LAKE CITY — Not even Utah is having enough babies.

America’s most religious state, dominated by a religion whose adherents famously have large broods, has seen its birth rate drop parallel to that in the rest of U.S. In fact, Utah’s baby bust has been steeper than the rest of the country’s.

Utah is becoming more “normal,” and not in a healthy way. In fact, Utah’s “total fertility rate” (babies per woman) fell below the replacement level of 2.1 back before the pandemic began.

What’s going on? Ask around here, and you'll get one answer a lot: Blame California.

Utah’s population is changing due to migration from other states. By 2019, 7.5% of Utah’s population had been born in California. The pandemic put that migration into overdrive, as Californians fled crowded cities and harsh lockdowns and mask mandates. Also, plenty of people, now freed to work from home, decided lower-cost and stunningly beautiful Utah was best.

The first impact, if you ask any Utah native: The Californians make real estate too expensive. Everyone trying to buy a nice big house in the suburbs or even a modest family home in SLC’s The Avenues is now competing against Californians. When buying a home is more expensive, it’s reasonable to assume people will have fewer kids.

The second impact is simply the changing composition of the state. Mormons haven’t been a majority of Salt Lake City’s population since before 2018. A less Mormon state is a less fecund state.

To be sure, Mormonism and large families are still very much a part of Utah. “It’s part of our culture,” TK Gochnaur says. “It’s what we do. Big Families are very accepted here.”

Chevy Suburbans, which can seat up to 8, are called “Mormon Assault Vehicles” around Salt Lake.

One couple, Ben and Cher, came up to Salt Lake from St. George in Southern Utah this week. They live there because they have three kids, and St. George is “the best place to raise a kid,” says Cher. “It’s very family-oriented,” Ben explains. The local ski mountain lets kids ski for free. BMX bike tracks run through the town. And it’s very safe. “We can still leave our garage door open,” Cher explains.

Farmington, a suburb north of Salt Lake County, is also a great place to raise kids, according to moms I met there. Ellen, Shea, and Stephanie and their kids met as a homeschool co-op in Farmington’s Woodside Park. The kids were dissecting owl pellets, harvesting seeds from sunflowers, and sketching whatever plants or bugs they had come across.

As I occupied the moms in conversation, the kids wandered off, climbed trees, and caught grasshoppers in their water bottles.

Stephanie can’t say enough about how the parks and the nature make Farmington a great place to raise kids. She lived in Dallas for a while. “It was all concrete.”

Utah subsidizes homeschool parents. It has great parks and endless opportunities for kid activities. Farmington has its own amusement park.

That’s why Utah has traditionally had so many babies, and why Utah remains in the top three on the score of Total Fertility Rate.

Utah peaked at 55,357 babies in 2008, a year after the U.S. peaked. Then numbers everywhere collapsed thanks to the financial crisis and the Great Recession. “We thought we’d bounce back after that,” said Natalie Gochnaur, Director of the University of Utah’s Kem Gardner Policy Institute, especially because the crisis was a lot shallower and shorter in Utah.

Except they didn’t bounce back.

Now Utah’s Total Fertility Rate is 1.99, compared to the national average of 1.71. The biggest dropoff is among women in their late 20s, which are still the peak child-bearing years.

The standard explanation for every wealthy nation's Baby Bust is a simple story of progress. Women used to have so many babies, the story goes, because they didn’t have good alternatives. Now, thanks to greater equality in education and professional life, women are free to choose — and they’re choosing no babies or fewer babies.

This shift is just as real in the LDS world, just from a different baseline. “What we’re seeing here is opportunity for women,” says Gochnaur. “LDS women feel more empowered. They have more choice.”

The economy in Utah is better than in most states. So is the educational system. This superiority in education and jobs might make this educated-women effect that much stronger.

More common than college-educated women swearing off babies entirely, is such women delaying parenthood, and thus having fewer kids in the end, Gochnaur believes.

Combine some Californians with some more career-oriented LDS women, and you drive down the average family size — which can be contagious. Actual family size tends to dictate desired family size. The result is a downward-cascading birthrate.

Four kids is the new seven, says Krista Zambrana, a teacher at Farmington’s seminary — a church-run school adjacent to Farmington High School. "Seven used to be what four is now. Seven used to be normal.”

Why has it changed? “It used to be that men could provide for the family, and you didn't need dual incomes,” Zambrana says. “Now women have to work, and that has to drive down family size.”

It’s the same argument you hear in all 50 states: Life has gotten too expensive now. Zambrana’s colleague, Brother Jake, puts an LDS angle on this take. “In our religion we're encouraged to have as many kids you can provide for.” To have more kids than you can handle would be to abandon the virtue of self-reliance.

Utah is still near the top in babies. But it's following the rest of the country toward a more child-free future.

 

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Original Author: Timothy P. Carney

Original Location: Utah's baby bust

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