North Dakota sees boom in child population when much of nation struggles with ‘baby bust’

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“This is the highest that we’ve had definitely in the last three decades,” said Stephanie Fong, the medical center’s marketing and public relations coordinator.

Births, which were in the low 300s back in 2007 before the oil boom hit, have fluctuated around the 700 mark since 2016 in the city of 22,739, even though activity in the Oil Patch has subsided from its peak.

“People are staying here and having bigger families,” Fong said.

A similar trend is playing out throughout much of urban North Dakota. The state, with 23.6% of the population under age 18, ranks ninth in the nation for its population of children — up from 42nd in 2010.

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“So we’ve moved up quite a bit,” said Kevin Iverson, the state’s census office manager. North Dakota’s birth rate, 13.8 births per 1,000 population, is second only to Utah, where the rate is 15.3.

The increase is happening at a time when most of the United States is experiencing a “baby bust,” with 1.1 million fewer children living in the country now than at the start of the last decade — a dip that coincided with an increase in the adult population of 8.8%, according to census figures.

North Dakota’s child population grew by 30,300 from 2010 to 2019, the seventh-highest gain, census figures show. During the same period, Minnesota gained just more than 19,000. Some large states, including California, Illinois and New York, saw decreases in their child populations.

“To me, it’s just amazing,” Iverson said. “We’re such a small state. You wouldn’t expect us to rank.”

North Dakota ranked as the fourth-youngest state in 2018; a ranking for 2019 isn’t yet available. That could reflect the fact that North Dakota’s death rate is a little lower than might be expected, Iverson said.

“I tend to believe we’re living a bit longer,” he said. It might also be an indication that more people have the means to retire to a sunbelt state, Iverson added.

North Dakota saw rapid population growth from 2008 to 2015, when the state’s population began to stabilize. All but eight counties saw an increase in child population during that period, but the trend moderated and North Dakota Kids Count said growth slowed, with 31 counties losing child population in 2017.

Births in North Dakota began to increase in 2002, when 7,755 babies were born. By 2014, 11,352 births were recorded, but births leveled off in 2015 and 2016 and decreased by 6% in 2017 to 10,738, according to North Dakota Kids Count.

Schools and day care centers have had to cope with those increases. Statewide, school enrollments have risen to 110,797 for the 2019-20 school year from 93,715 in 2009-10, according to state figures.

In Dickinson, voters last year rejected two proposed bond issues and school leaders are expected to decide soon when to return with a proposal of around $100 million to address space shortages at the elementary and high school levels, Superintendent Shon Hocker said.

Dickinson High School, which was built for 1,000 to 1,100 students, had an enrollment of 1,059 when school started this fall. Each incoming class increases by 60 students per year.

“By the time our current kindergarten class begins high school, DHS will be 150% over capacity,” Hocker said. “It’s an ongoing challenge for Dickinson public schools.”

A committee exploring the district’s space shortages has predicted that, without passage of a bond issue to expand high school capacity, the high school would have to adopt a split school day — with some students taking classes in the afternoon and evening — or build portable classrooms.

Hocker has advocated using the state’s Legacy Fund to develop a school building grant program that would cover 20% of the cost of a new school. Current low-interest loan programs are capped at $10 million, which Hocker said is helpful but too low to solve the problem.

“Ten million dollars doesn’t do hardly anything on a $100 million project,” he said.

Kirsten Baesler, state superintendent of schools, said there is discussion in Bismarck of increasing state support for school districts coping with increased enrollments.

Some are proposing that the state assume responsibility for school building projects, as other states, including Wyoming, do. Baesler said that would have its downside, since it would sideline local decision-making.

If the state takes over decisions for school building projects, “then you go on a list,” she said.

North Dakota has a licensed day care capacity of 36,529. Demand has been relatively stable in recent years, although it is challenging to find care for infants or children with special needs, said Kay Larson, who heads Child Care Aware of North Dakota, which helps parents find day care for their children.

“There’s always a demand for more infant slots than seem to be available,” she said.

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