V.I. youth population sees steep decline


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ST. THOMAS - The youth population in the Virgin Islands is rapidly declining, and that may have a serious impact on the society in coming decades, according to a new report released Tuesday.

The report, put out by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, analyzes 2010 Census data as it relates to children in the territory. It provides an overview of the territory's demographic, social and economic characteristics of children and families.

The report was written by Mark Mather and Beth Jarosz, of the nonprofit The Population Reference Bureau, and was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

At a press conference Tuesday, Mather went through the new statistics about the territory's youth and compared the data to the 2000 Census reports for the Virgin Islands as well as to national trends.

Population

In 1960, a time when the territory experienced rapid economic growth, 46 percent of the total population was younger than 18 years old.

By 2010, that number had fallen to just 25 percent of the total population.

The drop can be seen just in the last 10 years, Mather said.

Between the 2000 Census and the 2010 Census, the percentage of the population younger than 18 fell 21 percent - from 34,289 to 27,026. The total population number only fell by 2 percent in that time, from 108,612 in 2000 to 106,405 in 2010.

For the population younger than 15 years old, the number is smaller today than it was 40 years ago, according to the report.

The child population has declined each decade since the 1980 Census, although the decline has been faster since 2000, the report's authors said.

Mather said there are several reasons for the decline.

"In 1990, about 17 percent of women ages 35 to 44 reported giving birth to five or more children during their lifetimes. By 2000, this share had declined to 12 percent and continued falling to 8 percent in 2010," the report states.

Family size may be shrinking, but Virgin Islanders still have more children than those who live in the states, Mather said.

According to the report, the decline in births accounted for about 60 percent of the decline in population of children younger than 10. The remaining decrease most likely is attributed to people leaving the territory, Mather said.

"Many young families move away from the Virgin Islands to look for educational or job opportunities elsewhere, leaving behind an older population with fewer young children," the report said.

These two factors, combined with longer life expectancy, result in an aging population, Mather said.

The median age of the population in the territory rose from 28.2 in 1990, to 33.4 in 2000 to 39.2 in 2010.

"This is not a recipe for rapid growth," Mather said.

Poverty

About 31 percent of children in the territory live below the federal poverty line, according to the report. In 2010, the federal poverty threshold for a family of four - including two children - was an annual income of $22,113.

However, that threshold does not factor in the incredibly high cost of living in the Virgin Islands.

"The poverty rate at 31 percent is really underestimating the burden that these families are facing," Mather said.

Poverty has a wide range of negative affects on young people, according to the report.

"Children growing up in poor families have worse health and educational outcomes, are more likely to experience parental divorce and housing instability, live in single-parent families and experience violent crime compared to children growing up in non-poor families," according to the report.

Mather said he does not like to compare the territory to states because the cost of living and other factors such as housing are so different.

However, he noted that out of the whole country, the Virgin Islands is second only to Mississippi in child poverty rates.

According to the report, poverty rates for children are higher in single-mother families, which make up a majority of poor families in the territory.

Race plays a role in poverty rates as well.

In 2009, the child poverty rate was highest among the Hispanic population - about 43 percent of children in poverty were Hispanic. About 32 percent of children in poverty were black, according to the report.

The economic trends in the territory do not seem to fall in line with the United States, according to the report's findings. When the U.S. economy faltered in the late 2000s, child poverty levels rose in the states. However, in the Virgin Islands, economic conditions improved and child poverty levels declined, according to the report.

From 1999 to 2009, the percentage of children in poverty fell from 42 percent to 31 percent.

Mather said given the economic downturn in the territory since 2010, the number of children in poverty likely has increased.

Education

About 27 percent of Virgin Islanders ages 3-4 were not enrolled in any type of school or educational program, Mather said. This is actually better than the national average, which stands at about 52 percent, he said.

Mather said this is attributed to the high poverty rates in a way, as more children in the territory qualify for the federally funded Head Start early childhood educational programs. According to the report, about 75 percent children ages 3-4 are enrolled in Head Start in the territory.

School enrollment rates in the Virgin Islands mirror the states going up through age 14, according to the report.

However, 7 percent of children 15-17 years old are not enrolled in school compared with 4 percent nationwide, according to the 2010 Census data.

Implications

The decline of the child population has serious ramifications, according to Mather.

With more aging adults and fewer children, the territory's priorities both in policymaking and in funding could shift away from youth. "This could affect spending on children's programs," he said.

If that happens, the territory could end up with a smaller and less prepared workforce, which could affect the territory's economic growth and sustainability, according to Mather.

"The future of kids in the Virgin Islands is at risk," he said.

Research has shown that in order to reach a middle income by age 35, certain milestones must be met in a child's life, according to Laura Speer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Speer said Tuesday that children must first be born healthy to adults who are ready to be parents.

The next milestone is being physically and mentally ready for school by age 5. After that, the next step is reading and obtaining basic math skills at grade level by about third grade, graduating high school and earning some sort of higher education degree or certification.

Two major life events have been shown to throw children off that track, involvement with the criminal justice system and teen pregnancy, she said.

Solutions

Speer said reports like this one are necessary to build the public will to make changes and support the youth in our communities.

She said the solution to the problem is four-pronged:

- Investment in early childhood education.

- Support of low-income working families.

- Keeping young people on track and helping them to get back on track.

- Providing post-secondary education to low-income students.

"It's not just the right thing to do, it's a smart investment," Speer said.

Spending a little money on early childhood development could eliminate the much larger price tag that comes with supporting a prisoner, she said.

The full report is available for download at www.cfvi.net.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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