Where did all the kids go?
Let’s just start this off with a graph that might surprise you. The University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute compiled stats from the 2020 Census to try to explore and understand the youth population changes in Salt Lake City. To do so, it’s useful to compare that data with data from other censuses and other cities.
So there’s Seattle down there at the bottom, where only 14.5% of residents are under 18. But Salt Lake City now has the No. 2 lowest percentage of youth among these comparable cities, with only 18.6% of our residents being under 18 — fewer kids than Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix and so forth. In my view, that’s pretty remarkable.
If you asked out-of-state residents to rank those cities in terms of percentage of youth, I suspect they wouldn’t put Salt Lake City in the cellar. After all, we’re in the land of big families, right?
But also note the big decrease in the percentage of youth from 2010 to 2020 in Salt Lake City. Only the similar-sized drop in Los Angeles rivals it, but truth be told, the percentage of kids is dropping literally everywhere.
What’s going on here? With the help of the Gardner Institute, let’s take a deeper look at Salt Lake City’s — and Utah’s — decrease in youths.
Salt Lake City vs. the rest of Utah
While the graph above shows just Salt Lake City’s decline in youth population, it’s not just happening in our capital city. Gardner also compared Salt Lake City’s youth decline to that of Salt Lake County and the state as a whole.
To be sure, there are fewer kids in the big city than in outlying areas. But that’s always been true; ever since 1970, Salt Lake City has had roughly 10 percentage points fewer youths than Utah as a whole. Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen Salt Lake County’s population percentages inch closer to Salt Lake City’s population percentages than those of the state.
Since I suspect you’re curious: Utah County has seen its percentage of under 18-year-olds drop from 35.2% to 31.3% of the total population between the 2010 and 2020 censuses.
It’s worth noting that the number of 10- to 18-year-olds did substantially grow in Utah over the course of the decade. It’s just the number of 0- to 9-year-olds that shrunk — you know, those born in the 2010s.
The above analysis includes children born in and out of Utah, by the way. Maybe parents of teenagers are more likely to be willing to move in general, including to our area? That being said, I can’t think of a reason that would be more or less true in the 2010s than it was in the 2000s.
We’ve tackled the Salt Lake City School District’s decision to close elementary schools in a previous column, and district officials cite these declining numbers of students as the major factor. That makes some sense, though I still feel they need to more clearly explain why schools with fewer students is actually a bad thing, not a plus.
This isn’t the first time in history Salt Lake City’s youth populations have dropped significantly. It is, though, the first time they’ve dropped to this degree while the rest of the population has risen.
Just as the decline in youth population in Salt Lake City is mirrored throughout the West in this decade, the trend of suburban flight out of Salt Lake City to the rest of Salt Lake County wasn’t considered out of line with peer cities in the 1960s and 1970s. Boise, Denver, and Reno also saw similar declines in youth populations in that time period.
By neighborhood and home type
But where and how are these changes happening? Mapping makes it clear that the number of children is decreasing everywhere, but most recently it’s Salt Lake City’s west side that has seen the biggest drops. Red census tracts below are places that have declined in youth population between 2010 to 2020, blue tracts are where growth occurred.
You can see how much a difference age makes. For children ages 0 to 9 (kids born in the 2010s), the west side has seen massive drops in that population in each census tract. That’s after experiencing growth in the 2000s to 2010 range, when the 10 to 17-year-olds were born on that side of the valley. Notably, there were 21% fewer Hispanic children under age 18 in 2020 compared to 2010 in Salt Lake City.
But the decline in 0- to 4-year-olds happened nearly everywhere in Salt Lake City; from 2016-2020, people just weren’t having as many kids as usual no matter the neighborhood.
One aspect of this that helped me understand what was going on was Gardner’s data on home ownership.
In 2010, 31.5% of Salt Lake City residences that were owner-occupied had children living there; 23.6% of renter-occupied homes did. By the 2020 census, those numbers had fallen to 28.1% for owner-occupied homes and a minuscule 16.9% for renters.
Those with a keen eye for numbers will notice that significantly bigger drop for renters, and I think that gets to part of why this drop is occurring: affordability. While rental costs and home prices both exploded during the decade, those who rent are typically in a less stable financial situation. Kids are expensive, and who wants to bring a child into the world when parents aren’t sure they’ll get by?
Regardless of the rationale, what we’re seeing is significant demographic change in Utah — and especially Salt Lake City.
Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at email@example.com
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