Golden State shrinking?
Economic uncertainty seems to play role in state’s declining birth rate
If you believe that children are our future, you may be disheartened to learn that fewer children are being born in California. Numbers from the California Department of Public Health show a marked decline in birth rates, reaching a level that many experts say is the lowest in history.
In 2010, the most recent year for statewide statistics, only 63 babies were born per 1,000 women of fertility age—that is, 15 to 44 years old. Just four years earlier, the rate was 71.3, which itself was down from 75.5 in 1995.
Butte County had the 11th-lowest rate in the state at 51 babies per 1,000 fertile-aged women. Interestingly, one county neighbor, Glenn, posted the seventh-highest rate, 71.9.
Dr. Mark Lundberg, Butte County’s public-health officer, looks at the numbers with great interest.
“Decreasing fertility is an observation that should be studied and examined for its interesting social explanations and implications,” said Lundberg. “From my public-health point of view, it is generally positive. We do not need a growing population for a country to be physically healthy.
“Our environment may benefit from a declining population,” he observed.
“Economists and politicians may have a very different view of fertility declines and its implications. One obvious exception would be if infertility rates were also increasing. If our fertility rates were declining because women could not get pregnant, that would be concerning. Then we would ask questions about causes of infertility like infections, toxins, environmental issues, etc. I don’t know of any concerns like these at this time.”
So why is the birth rate dropping, and why is it particularly low in Butte County?
The overarching trend, according to California Healthline and the San Francisco Chronicle, likely corresponds to the economic decline.
“I’ve heard discussions about whether the recession is making people stop and think if they can afford children,” Lundberg said—raising the sociological question about whether the value of raising a family has changed.
Every county has its own set of circumstances that influences its rate and ranking. San Francisco, for instance, is a metropolitan county, and the Chronicle cited a demographics expert who attributed the low rate there (47.6, fourth lowest statewide) to an exodus to the suburbs among young couples ready to start families.
Butte County, too, seems to feature pragmatic decision-makers, but in a different way. Lundberg sees greater planning as a potential cause of the birth-rate decline.
“From a public-health standpoint, that could be a great trend if it means people are being more intentional about when to have children,” he said. “I underline ‘could’—we don’t know if all these [children] are planned. But we have been trying to make family-planning service more readily available; we want people to have their pregnancies planned. There’s family planning all across the county.”
Low-income women seeking to plan their pregnancies can seek services at county public-health clinics in Chico and Oroville. Butte College and Chico State both have “excellent family-planning services.” Lundberg also mentioned Women’s Health Specialists, Planned Parenthood, Ampla Health and Northern Valley Indian Health in the context of family-planning services available locally.
“We also have a large number of OBs [obstetrician/gynecologists] in town, so people who have access to insurance can seek care,” he added. “Oroville, Chico and Paradise all have large numbers of gynecologists.”
Meanwhile, the public health department mounts a number of outreach efforts. Health officials make presentations at schools and health fairs. The county received a faith-based grant to counsel women through religious organizations. Moreover, during appointments at public-health clinics, health-care providers discuss family planning with both men and women.
“There definitely have been those sorts of outreaches,” Lundberg said. “So I think there are a lot of resources available to women seeking family-planning services.”
Glenn County may have a higher birth rate than Butte County, but it also is experiencing a decline in birth rate. Grinnell Norton, Glenn County’s deputy director of public health and director of nursing, cited a 10 percent drop between 2010 and 2011.
She, too, sees family-planning efforts as a prime cause.
“I’d like to attribute it to public health’s great outreach in getting people in their reproductive years to use birth control and to plan their families and maybe realize the impact of raising a child from 0 to 18,” Norton said. “It’s not a cheap endeavor if you plan on doing it right. As a mother of four, with two in college, I can tell you that!
“People are realizing that entering into that commitment takes not only money, but it [also] takes time. Maybe they’re choosing to have fewer children or [they] wait until they have a secure job to have children.”
Norton knows for sure that services are being used. Planned Parenthood makes weekly visits to the public health department, “and their clinics are very busy. It seems like it’s [family planning] increased.”
Three years ago, Glenn County also launched a project through WIC—the federal Women, Infants and Children program—in which health officials encourage women to space their pregnancies, via counseling and informational pamphlets. The goal is for women to wait two years between birth and their next pregnancy.
“We’re hoping that has been helpful,” Norton said.
Declining birth rates may strike some people as alarming. Lundberg, from his perspective as a public-health official, sees a different picture.
“From just a population-health point of view, certainly across the world there’s a need for controlling population,” he explained. “There’s been an explosion of population, and that creates challenges for resources: food, housing, hospitals. From a population point of view, there are some benefits to stable populations.
“I think it frightens the planners of our communities, because they make certain economic assumptions based on birth rates, but it looks to me that the population rate is a little over two [children] per woman on the average, and that at least maintains your population.”