Where (or Why) Have All the Children Gone?

Where (or Why) Have All the Children Gone?

2021 | Week of August 16 | Radio Transcript #1425

I haven’t seen it in a headline yet, but it should be a headline—maybe even THE headline about Wisconsin’s census data. But I suspect most people will completely lose this data point in all the hype about redrawing political districts.

Let me make this clear. How political district boundaries are drawn for the next ten years pales in importance in comparison to what the data I’m talking about forecasts about Wisconsin’s future.

So, what’s that data point that has me so concerned? Over the last ten years, according to this newest census, we’ve experienced a 4 percent decline in the number of children who are living in Wisconsin.

How does that happen? Everyone should be asking that question and should be carefully reflecting on what this drop means. The two main ways such a drop happens are a low fertility rate and families with children moving out of state.

On the matter of a low fertility rate, Wisconsin has been below the replacement birthrate of 2.1 children per woman of child-bearing years for most of the years since 1974.[1] The replacement birthrate refers to the number of babies that need to be born in any society just to keep the society at current population levels. Any birthrate below the replacement rate, especially over a sustained period of time, means the population is being naturally depleted.

The second main reason for this 4% drop in the number of children living in Wisconsin is families moving out of the state. A few years ago we worked with some demographers and analysts on this very issue. The statistics are sobering. It’s not unusual for more families with minor children to leave our state each year than such families to move to the state. When you have that kind of deficit, again, over a significant period of time, eventually reality catches up.

Generally speaking, the two states that the majority of Wisconsin families moved to were Florida and Texas. Setting the weather aside here, one of the things these states have in common, and that Wisconsin does not have, is neither state has an income tax. Wisconsin actually has the 11th highest income tax rate in the country according to the Tax Foundation.[2] When these families with children leave, they don’t just take people away for today; they take people away most often for generations.

Wisconsin has been experiencing the fallout from this reality for several years. The worker shortage we have right now in this state isn’t just about people being paid more to not work than to work, though that is certainly part of the problem. It’s not just about a skills-gap. We simply don’t have enough people to fill all the jobs available. People born between1975-1995 are in their prime working years. If we had enjoyed a fertility rate at or above replacement level in that 20-year span, we very likely would be in a different situation with our work force right now.

School districts, least the majority of them in Wisconsin, have been dealing with declining enrollments for several years.  A couple of years ago in a public hearing on some education bills, an official with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards said that over 60% of school districts in our state were in declining enrollments. From a school district’s perspective, every student represents dollars; lower enrollments mean less money coming to the district. That impacts hiring and programs and even whether or not districts keep low-attended schools open.

The good news is this trend is reversible. First, we all need to become champions of marriage and childbearing within marriage, or what we call “good fertility.” It would be counterproductive to promote what we call “bad fertility,” which is when children are born to unwed mothers. It’s bad in the sense that such births put both the baby and the woman at risk for a host of problems, not the least of which is poverty. What we need to do is show the younger generations the beauty of marriage and children in both word and example.

Second, Wisconsin government needs to address in meaningful ways reducing the tax burden and in so doing, give families with children a financial reason to stay—or at least make it harder for them to leave.

Jsonline reporting on this data drop said it is “notable” and “forecast[s] consequences for the state’s education systems and labor force.”[3] I’d say that’s an understatement of a sizeable magnitude. The question is do we have the character to begin reversing course? I pray we do.

This is Julaine Appling for Wisconsin Family Council reminding you the prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”





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