Why Utah’s disappearing baby carriage is a problem

Written by Krisana Finlay

June 22, 2023

Over the last 50 years, U.S. school enrollment rates have varied. But many are concerned about the steep decline across the board since 2019. Although at first it seemed the drop in enrollment was a temporary dip from the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government projects that total K-12 school enrollment in fall 2030 will be 5.1% lower than it was in 2021. 

School enrollment rates are partly driven by factors of family formation, including trends in marriage and fertility. Reason suggests fewer children means fewer students, and some states are experiencing just that. Michigan experienced a decline in school enrollment rates primarily due to a decline in birth rates. Peter Spadafore, associate executive director of Michigan Association of School Superintendents and Administrators, said 

We are dealing with declining enrollment across the state. … It’s not an isolated problem, and it has less and less to do with school choice and less and less to do with out-migration, and more and more to do with birth rates.  

New Hampshire is facing similar difficulties with school enrollment rates. Birth rates have been dropping, and migration into the state has not made up the difference. 

Utah’s family situation is, for now, doing better. But there are clouds on the horizon. Utah’s average fertility rates have been consistently higher than that of the United States and its Intermountain West neighbors over the last 50 years. However, they have also been in long-term decline over that time period.  

Utah experienced highs and lows in its fertility rates compared to the nation in the last five decades. For example, while the United States experienced a dip in fertility in the 1980s, Utah experienced a peak fertility rate. The reasons given for this peak include more migration into Utah, an acceleration in fertility rate, and an increase of women of child-bearing age. 

However, Utah’s population isn’t creating the same fertility rate peak as it did in the 1980s. Rather, Utah’s fertility rate is declining faster than the nation’s: Utah’s rate dropped 42.4% over the last 50 years while the nation’s rate dropped 36% . From 2010 to 2020, Utah went from the highest to fourth-highest fertility rate in the nation. The 22% drop in Utah’s fertility rate during that decade was the seventh fastest drop in the U.S. 

Now, Utah’s fertility rate is low enough that, without migration into the state, Utah’s population would begin to decline over time. Among demographers, a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1 births per woman is the level required for a population to maintain itself without migration. In 2010, Utah’s TFR was 2.5. In 2018, it dropped to 2.03. In 2021, it was 1.92 births per woman in Utah. 

So what? 

Many factors influence family formation, including the number of men and women of marriageable and childbearing age, birth rates, and cultural climate. Secondary measures may also be an indicator of family formation, such as views on marriage and having children, economic trends and incentives, and school enrollment rates. Utah’s school enrollment rates are not at the low levels of Michigan or New Hampshire, but Utah’s fertility rates point to that possibility in the future, if trends continue. 

Utah’s population is growing, but an increasing share of that growth is from migration into the state, and the population is aging. The state’s decline in fertility means that Utah is relying upon migration for its rate of population growth.  

Taken together, these factors raise important questions for Utah’s future. The effects of declining fertility may not be significantly impacting the state today, but policymakers must keep the long game in mind. As American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Tim Carney said, “Strong communities take strong families, and strong families take strong communities.” To help keep Utah strong, policymakers will need to create strong policies that support family formation.  

Insights: analysis, research, and informed commentary from Sutherland experts. For elected officials and public policy professionals.

  • School enrollment rates are one potential indicator of family formation, and the federal government expects them to keep declining.
  • Utah’s fertility rates have declined faster than the nation’s rate of decline, which poses a risk for Utah’s community and economic health.
  • Policymakers need to keep the long game in mind and support family formation policies now to protect Utah’s future.

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