The youth population in Utah’s capital is now the lowest it has been in more than a century after falling drastically again over the past decade, even though it is now more populated overall than it has ever been, a new report finds.
Salt Lake City's under-18 population fell to 37,101 at the time of the 2020 census, down about 12% or nearly 5,000 fewer children than what was reported in 2010. That's despite the fact that the city’s population grew by over 13,000 residents over the past decade, or 7% overall, according to researchers at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
Their findings, released Monday, underscore why the city's school district is now looking to close four elementary schools as it deals with a drop-off in student enrollment.
"Our city population is changing," said Heidi Prior, a public policy analyst for the Gardner Institute and the report's lead author. "This move toward being a city with fewer kids is a big change in that it's pervasive. ... We saw it in renters and in homeowners. We saw it in multiple racial groups. We saw it in neighborhoods across the city. So, it's not just one little corner of our population or city; it's happening everywhere."
Salt Lake's child population decline
The Gardner Policy Institute began looking into Salt Lake City's under-18 population right after deeper 2020 census data was released. The initial data listed Salt Lake City as having nearly 200,000 people, the most it has ever had, yet Prior and Mallory Bateman, the institute's demographic research director, quickly noticed that the under-18 population didn't account for any of the growth.
Salt Lake City's under-18 population had already declined from nearly 30% of the city's population in 1970 to 22.5% by 2010 as a result of various trends. The percentage dropped another 3.9 points from 2010 to 2020. By then, they started to hear that Salt Lake City School District could close some schools, especially after a state audit found that the student-age population dropped by nearly 29% from 2014 to 2022.
Prior and Bateman wanted to know what happened and which areas were most affected.
Some statistics jumped out immediately:
• The number of households with children dropped from about 1 in 4 to about 1 in 5.
• The number of married-couple families with children also dropped from 46% in 2010 to 39% in 2020.
Other trends emerged as the researchers dug further into the data. Other key findings include:
• Salt Lake City's under-10 population dropped by more than 6,000 over the course of the decade, erasing gains in the population of children aged 10 to 17. The older group actually grew by 974 in 10 years.
• Aside from some gains near downtown and the Central Ninth district, almost every other section of the city reported drop-offs within the zero to 9 population.
• The most "substantial" declines came in neighborhoods like the Fairpark, Glendale, Poplar Grove, Rose Park and Westpoint — the city's west side.
• Child population declines were reported across most racial and ethnic groups, but changes to census questions from 2010 and 2020 may have impacted some of these results.
What's more, the 2020 census figure ended up being the lowest since residents reported 39,480 children in 1980, which was the previous low point since at least 1930.
"I sort of suspected that the share of our under-18 (population) would have declined, but I was really surprised that the actual count of children was lower in 2020 than it had been for a century prior," Prior said.
The high since 1930 remains 65,792 children in 1960, just ahead of Salt Lake City's "suburban flight."
The most recent dropoff, a part of the city's "adult-driven growth," can have major impacts beyond school closures. Bateman says this can lead to changes in transportation options and community amenities, such as investing more in transit options and less in playgrounds to meet the community needs of an aging population.
Not just Salt Lake City
This trend isn't unique to Salt Lake City, though researchers say that it may be more magnified in the city. It's something that seems to have started countywide, statewide and nationwide since 2008 — and there are no indications that it will slow down soon.
The Census Bureau estimated earlier this year that the percentage of children in Utah fell to 27.6% in 2022, about 1.4 percentage points below the 2020 census and nearly 4 percentage points below what was recorded in 2010. That means the conversations happening in Salt Lake City now may be ones other parts of the state will have in the future.
The federal agency also found Utah remains nearly 3 percentage points ahead of any other state in the country in this category, as the national rate slid from 22.2% in 2021 to 21.7% last year.
The new Gardner Institute study acknowledges that cities across the West also seem to have the same problem as Utah's capital. Major child percentage drop-offs were also found in places like Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Seattle — all cities that still ended up growing in adult population.
Bateman explains that the overall child population decline is primarily due to a decline in fertility rates, something that is often attributed to economic uncertainty. She said cities may be impacted more because of growing suburbs in the West, but possible reasons for the under-18 population declines are something that the researchers did not look into in the new report.
"That's something we'd have to research further," she said.
A possible fix?
Salt Lake City leaders are already turning to affordable housing and other measures as they try to keep families with children or woo them back.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Monday that $10 million in the city's perpetual housing fund is expected to add 1,500 units. A "majority" of these are intended to have three or four bedrooms to accommodate families. The units will be a mix of condominiums or "wealth-building" rental units that residents can build equity on even as renters.
This is on top of measures the Salt Lake City Council took to give K-12 students and parents access to public transit at no additional cost. City residents also approved an $85 million bond last year to help improve city parks that children and families can play in.
"Those are just a few of the high-level things we're doing to increase family affordability and quality of life in the city," the mayor said.
Only time will tell if that will help reverse the trends that grew over the past decade.