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2020 saw a baby bust in Hawaii, but experts warn declining fertility rates are poised to ‘last forever’

Low fertility rates, experts say, are here to stay and they are poised to dramatically change how our society operates, from how the social safety net and econo
Published: Jul. 7, 2021 at 10:28 AM HST|Updated: Jul. 7, 2021 at 6:07 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It’s not that Kathryn Lee hasn’t thought about having a child. It’s that she has.

More than once, the 33-year-old has asked herself: Am I ready? She’s wondered, as a new business owner, whether she has the time to invest in a newborn. She’s thought about the costs, from diapers to schooling. And about whether she’s willing to change just about every aspect of her life to put a new life at the center of it.

She’s thought about it all and she’s decided — no, not for me, at least not yet.

“I think the idea of having a child, which automatically just puts a restriction on that freedom, was something that I kind of considered — I was weighing the pros and cons of that,” said Lee, as she sat under a shade tree in Kahala’s Hunakai Park on a recent day with her 7-year-old dog Ellie.

“Even now, I feel that there are so many things I want to do that would not be fair to a child if I had one.”

That complicated calculus Lee described is unique to her, but it’s not a unique exercise for women.

Across Hawaii and nationally, more and more women are putting off having children, having fewer kids or forgoing motherhood altogether — contributing to a steady decline in the fertility rate unlike anything that’s been seen in generations. Put in terms of raw numbers, there are now about 2,000 fewer births a year in Hawaii than there were just a decade ago. And trends point to further declines. In fact, the state predicts, Hawaii could soon see more deaths in any one year than births — a monumental change that has widespread implications.

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As Hawaii grapples with everything from traffic gridlock to a perennial affordable housing shortage, declining birth rates and a shrinking population may not sound all that bad. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be. But low fertility rates, experts say, are here to stay and they are poised to dramatically change how our society operates, from how the social safety net and economy function to how we care for our elders.

Andrew Mason, a senior fellow at the East-West Center who studies population, demographics and aging, notes many of the factors contributing to record low fertility rates in Hawaii and the US are — on their face — positive. Women have more opportunities in the workplace. Teen pregnancies are way down. Family planning resources are more accessible. But taken together, he said, those factors and more are helping to drive a radical shift — one that’s poised to have ramifications that will touch every corner of our daily lives.

Hawaii isn’t the only place grappling with population decline.

In countries around the globe, from Western Europe to East Asia, fertility rates have been on the decline for decades. And in Japan and Korea, the effects are now severe, leading to emptied schools and abandoned villages — and leaving governments scrambling to incentivize women to have more kids.

“In Korea, every woman is having one child and that’s it,” Mason said. “Under those circumstances, the population declines in half every 30 years, so it’s a real crisis. And we see that around the world.”

When a predicted baby boom went bust

As cities went into lockdown in March 2020, and the COVID crisis kept just about everybody at home, demographers predicted the year would see a baby boom. Instead, 2020 was a baby bust. Even Hawaii saw a significant decline — a major drop in an otherwise steady downward trend.

In all last year, there were 15,780 babies born in the islands. That’s down 16% from 2010.

And even if you take out 2020, an anomalous year, the numbers of babies born in the islands declined by about 11% over the decade—an unprecedented decline for the state since the post-war era. And the downward trend is set to continue.

“The emergence of low fertility is going to last forever and this is going to be a great challenge for us for the next 40 years, when COVID will hopefully be a little blip back there,” Mason said.

The decline in births is already impacting Hawaii’s population.

Overall since 2010, Hawaii’s population has actually increased — just at a slower rate. But a deeper dive into the numbers shows a more complicated picture.

For one, Hawaii’s population growth at the beginning of the decade was driven by in-migration from the mainland and not by births. And over the last three years, Hawaii’s population has actually declined thanks to a perfect storm: A big increase in outmigration, an ongoing decline in births and an increase in deaths.

Eugene Tian, chief economist for the state Business, Economic Development and Tourism Department, said the increase in deaths is attributable to Hawaii’s aging population.

“It’s the people getting aged, and especially the Baby Boomers,” Tian said. “The population in this group is increasing, so we have a pretty large base for the age of the population.”

Tian said more births are a way to offset the uptick in deaths and boost “natural growth.”

But state data shows Hawaii is going in the opposite direction.

For one, Hawaii’s replacement rate now falls below 2 — the number at which both parents are “replaced” in the population. Mason estimates that Hawaii women are now having about 1.8 children on average.

Hawaii also experienced a steeper decline than the rest of the nation when it comes to the number of births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. In 2010, there were 72 births for every 1,000 women of child-bearing age.

By 2019, that figure had shrunk to 63.

So why are fewer women giving birth or delaying motherhood? Experts say there are a host of factors.

Tian said economics definitely plays a role, especially in Hawaii. The high cost of living makes it all the more difficult to cover the necessities that kids need, from diapers to clothes to schooling and transportation.

Sarah Yuan, a specialist for the University of Hawaii’s Center on the Family who studies population aging, said it’s also worth noting that some ethnic groups are seeing steeper declines in their fertility rates. This is especially pronounced, she said, among Native Hawaiian and Filipino communities — in line with trends among minority groups nationally.

“It could mean that an improvement in their economic status” is driving the trend, Yuan said. “In general, higher economic status group tends to have fewer births because of the cost of raising a child.”

Yuan also said that the average age of new moms is rising — and fast. While teen pregnancies are way down, more women are deciding to have their first child in their late 30s and opting to have fewer children overall.

‘Families face impossible decisions’

Kathryn Lee doesn’t take the decision about whether to have kids lightly.

The biggest reason she knows it’s not the right time: Put simply, kids are expensive.

“It’s a little embarrassing, but I’m not at the place that I feel like I should be at 30 something years old,” said Lee, who recently launched a plant kit business called Succulent Geeks. “I just don’t have the money to be able to be like some other young adults who ... get married, they can go buy a house, they can start their families.”

“That’s not something I would be able to do.”

Experts say Hawaii, in particular, poses significant financial challenges to young people considering whether to start a family. It is primarily cost of living, after all, that is driving many in the islands (year after year) to seek out more opportunity and greater affordability on the mainland.

“We have high housing costs, high child care costs, not a lot of programs that support families with young children, so it’s very difficult to raise children here and I think that’s the consideration,” said Deborah Zysman, executive director of Hawaii Children’s Action Network. “Salaries have not kept pace with inflation.”

Summer Yadao, 43, knows all too well how expensive it is to raise kids in the islands — and understands why other women have opted not to have any. “It’s hard enough, just single people to make it here,” the single mom of three said. “So to think about having children ... more and more I can see why it would not be feasible.”

Yadao, who grew up in Mililani, experienced homelessness off and on since she was a teen after her mother suffered a mental illness and moved to the mainland. She has a steady income as a social worker, but needed a rental subsidy to be able to afford a place for her family. It really does take a village, she likes to say.

“I can’t even express how much of a difference it makes because you cannot make ends meet here on one single income, you cannot,” Yadao said, holding back tears.

Finding quality child care was another challenge Yadao faced when her kids were younger. She either had to stay home with her children full-time or go to work and scramble to find trustworthy child care.

For Hawaii families, child care and housing are among some of the biggest expenses, Zysman said.

Zysman said the estimated survival budget in Hawaii for a family of four is high — about $91,000 a year — and child care can easily cost $1,000 or more a month per child.

“Families face really impossible decisions right now,” Zysman said. “They have no paid leave, they need a paycheck, they’re often going back to work when they have a very young baby, even when that’s not their preference.”

She said the government needs to think about ways to lower costs, either through lifting wages or implementing things like child tax credits. And in the long run, she said, how can we support child care workers the way that teachers are paid — as part of critical infrastructure in the state?

“I think people are looking for communities that have those choices. And Hawaii people don’t right now. We don’t have a choice, not really. You gotta just take whatever you can in child care,” she said.

Andrew Mason, of the East-West Center, noted that Hawaii is unique because many families rely on grandparents to help with child care.

But that may soon change, too.

“Grandparents are going to be working more in the future ... so they may become less available to provide child care than they have in the past,” he said.

“And so the real question is, how are we going to provide strong systems of support that not only help women who want to have — to balance career and family, but also make sure that children are well cared for and that they receive education, health care and so forth that is really absolutely critical to our society?”

Caring for aging parents ... instead of kids

For some women, it’s not just the cost of living and career considerations that are convincing them to wait to have kids — or decide not to have kids at all. Many are serving as caregivers to aging parents.

Nilva Panimdim is in that group.

When Panimdim was in her 30s, she became a caregiver for her mother after her dad died. Her mom was rapidly declining while struggling with dementia and mental health issues.

“She became my child, and so in a way, I experienced taking care of someone on the back end,” Panimdim said. “She couldn’t feed herself, she couldn’t bathe herself, she couldn’t clothe herself. She was incontinent, so that experience was like having my own child.”

Panimdim’s mom died in 2008.

Now, at 54, she says caregiving left her drained emotionally and physically. But she doesn’t have any regrets and wouldn’t change the experience.

When Panimdim was in her 30s, a decade considered prime time for women to start having children, she instead became a caregiver for her mother after her dad pas

She doesn’t have any kids — and still doesn’t see them in her near future, even if through adoption.

“It’s never been something that I desired,” she said. “It’s not been as strong as when I was younger.”

There was a point when Panimdim did consider motherhood. As a sixth-grade teacher, she had a glimpse of what it would be like to shape a young person’s life — something she found rewarding.

“One of the things that I enjoyed about teaching was seeing the light in their eye — just light up when they understand a concept, ‘Oh! That’s what it means!’ and it allows them to open up so much doors in their mind to be able to understand, and then you build up on that,” Panimdim said.

But today, she’s satisfied with her choice.

“I sort of have a broad spectrum as to various reasons why I don’t want children. There’s the practical reason, there’s the financial reason, there’s the political reason, there’s the personal reasons,” she said.

Hawaii is getting much, much grayer

You might not be able to see it now, but experts foresee that as Hawaii’s fertility declines and population growth continues to slow, something else entirely is set to occur in the decades ahead: a much grayer society.

According to CDC data from 2018, Hawaii has the highest life expectancy in the country at 81 years old.

That’s a good thing, but that also means the population of seniors will grow. And that could add stress on public programs like Social Security and Medicare.

“With population aging, we know that people retire and then they rely on either the assets, whatever they saved during their work life, and they also rely on public programs such as Social Security or Medicare to subsidize or to help support their old age,” Yuan said.

“So as the older population grows bigger in size, you have smaller younger populations, especially in the working age. That will affect our ability to fund Social Security.”

With low fertility rates, that means we will have fewer working populations in 10 to 20 years, Yuan said.

Mason offers several solutions to address this situation. For one, he said more emphasis needs to be put on improving the productivity and education of the workforce. Hawaii and the nation should also focus on quality health care for all seniors and on programs that keep seniors engaged, whether in the workforce or retired.

He also said society needs to continue to bolster economic opportunities for women.

His message: A slowed population growth rate is inevitable.

But we can prepare for it, knowing all the while that there will be some big bumps in the road.

Plus, Mason added, there might be some real positives to a smaller population.

The real question, he said, will be whether Hawaii can cope with the population decline and “have people who are healthier, more educated, and have greater opportunities to pursue their goals in life?”

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