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The importance of more babies

Last year, the number of babies born to Grand Forks County residents took a dip -- not a huge one, and some data is still straggling in -- but it's a number worth watching as the Census Bureau gets ready to start its decennial headcount.

Last year, the number of babies born to Grand Forks County residents took a dip -- not a huge one, and some data is still straggling in -- but it's a number worth watching as the Census Bureau gets ready to start its decennial headcount.

According to the state Health Department, there were 914 babies born to county residents compared with 647 deaths. The estimated number of people moving in or out isn't available yet, but the county has averaged a loss of about 345 a year in the past decade.

Put those numbers together and it's a potential population loss of 78.

Part of the reason the census count is important is that population is a major component in many federal funding formulas.

Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown estimated that each resident is worth $1,000 to a community.


That includes everything from grants to help social service agencies to Head Start money for schools, though the way the formulas are constructed, new babies probably wouldn't be counted.

Beyond the census, babies mean a source of young workers down the road, assuming they don't leave town, when many of their elders retire. UND medical school officials had earlier sounded the alarm that those elders, whose numbers would be huge, would put a strain on the health care system without medical workers to take care of them.

It's the economy

For Brown, population growth is a hands-on sort of thing because, in his day job, he delivers babies at Altru Health System.

The number of births at the hospital was at about the same pace for the first half of the year compared with the same period in 2008, he said, but it tapered off in the second half. Usually, the hospital sees a mini baby boom starting around September, he said, but the boom wasn't quite as big last year.

Maybe the uncertain economy made couples think twice about having a baby, he said.

Some economic stats bear out that theory. Subtract the standard nine-month gestation period from June 2009 and you get September 2008, about the time the bottom fell out of the stock market. The rebound didn't start until about March 2009.

Unemployment in Grand Forks County amounted to 2.9 percent of the work force in September 2008, a big increase from 2.5 percent the same month in 2007.


In all the months that followed, the number of unemployed, not seasonally adjusted, was bigger compared to the same month in 2007. In February 2009, it was 4.3 percent compared with 3 percent in February 2008. That's a 38 percent increase.

For comparison

But the birth rates in the state's three other big counties weren't all down. Cass County, home to the state's largest city, Fargo, continues to see steady growth, as does Ward County, the smallest of the four.

Cass County's unemployment rate grew faster than all the others, averaging about 36 percent when comparing each month to its counterpart the year before. Grand Forks averaged 21 percent, Burleigh averaged 24 percent and Ward, exceptionally, averaged just 9.9 percent.

That's oil country for you.

State demographer Richard Rathge, based at North Dakota State University, said the number of births can swing pretty wildly, so demographers usually look at averages over many years.

Since the start of the decade, Grand Forks County has added about 900 babies a year on average -- Ward County 940, Cass County 1,880 and Burleigh County 950. But their populations haven't changed the same way. Census estimates compiled by Rathge indicate that Cass and Burleigh counties have boomed, Grand Forks has plugged along and Ward has lost population.

GF difference


Birth fits into that estimate this way: The state provides birth and death stats for the year and the Census Bureau, using federal tax records, provides the number of residents moving in or leaving town. Population growth is a matter of births and inmigration outpacing deaths and outmigration.

Deaths and outmigrations, therefore, constitute the bare minimum population that an area must replace to not shrink. For Grand Forks County, the average number of residents it must replace is about 780 a year. Ward County must replace 1,200.

For Cass and Burleigh counties, the big keep getting bigger. They could've gone without any births and their population would still have grown because new residents moving in outnumbered deaths. Without births, Cass would've grown an average of 260 a year and Burleigh 240.

Rathge said Grand Forks County is different than the others because it has such a large population of university students relative to its population and it has an essentially transient population at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Students generally delay marriage and childbearing while in school, he said, so the county's population of women of child-bearing age is smaller than it appears.

The air base has also been downsizing as it transitions to a new mission. Last year, the number of airmen, contractors and dependents was down to 4,200 compared with 5,200 two years before.

More money

Because of the importance of population growth to Grand Forks, Brown announced in 2004 that he wanted the city to grow to 58,000 by this census year. He said he wanted the city to be so attractive that people would want to visit, do business and live here.


Now, it is true that population does factor into federal funding formulas, but it's not quite a one-to-one relationship, so more babies won't mean more dollars. Different federal agencies count different kinds of residents, according to officials at various local governments.

For example, the amount of federal funds that go into Head Start programs are based on the number of children signed up for the programs. The amount going to pay for buses are based, in part, on population density. The amount going to Community Development Block Grants, which help cities serve low income residents are based, in part, on the number of residents living at or below 80 percent of the area's median income.

So, will Grand Forks meet the mayor's goal?

The city's last estimate of its population -- using a different process than Rathge -- showed that there were 55,136 residents in 2008. If that's accurate, it would've had to add 2,864 residents last year to make the goal.

State records indicate Grand Forks residents had 702 babies last year, though again data is straggling in because some births may have occurred out of state. That's compared to 1,486 in Fargo, 996 in Bismarck and 721 in Minot.

Migration data at the city level isn't available, so it's hard to say conclusively that 702 will not be enough. But in-migration would have had to outnumber deaths by 2,162 and that's probably a stretch.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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