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State getting younger, census says

The growth could tax school systems and lawmakers trying to allocate funds.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2001

The growth could tax school systems and lawmakers trying to allocate funds.

Florida's population of children is growing at a rapid clip, outstripping the rate of increase in adults -- a trend that holds both problems and promise for the state.

Census numbers released this week gave a statistical foundation to something planners suspect, home builders believe and school administrators have lived: Florida is moving toward a younger population, more dominated by families.

The portion of Floridians younger than 18 grew by 27 percent during the last decade, while adults grew by 23 percent. That trend echoed -- and was magnified -- in many Tampa Bay area counties.

Pasco County, long thought to be a retirement mecca, saw its population of children grow by a hefty 38 percent since 1990.

"It's a way to live near Tampa that's not Tampa," said Steve Permuth, a University of South Florida education professor. "It's a real secret that's getting out. Pasco has an excellent school system and low taxes."

Statewide, the number of those younger than 18 went from 2.9-million to 3.7-million during the last decade, and indications are that the racial makeup of that group is more diverse.

Demographers say the reasons for the significant rise in children revolve around the changing profile of those moving to Florida and the economic opportunities the state offers.

"Florida gets a substantial number of young- to middle-aged adults," said Monica Boyd, acting director of Florida State University's population center. "That doesn't fit with the popular image of the Florida trailer park retiree."

Boyd said this younger group of adults, which either has children or is going to, is finding more job opportunities and better-paying jobs than had been traditional in Florida. That coupled with lower housing prices adds up to an attractive lifestyle.

The other force at work, she said, is cultural differences in family size that come with the diversification of the state's population.

The growth in the state's Hispanic and African-American populations brings larger families. On average, white, non-Hispanic families have slightly fewer than two children; Hispanics have nearly three; and African-American families fall somewhere in between, Boyd said.

The trends have public policy implications in a state with a public school system under duress.

"The texture of the growth of children is a very complicated one," said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children. "We're not only growing in dimensions, but unfortunately in problems as well."

Levine said research shows more children will come from poor families with only one parent. Many will need help at school to deal with learning disabilities. Some will need to learn English.

"Unless we invest wisely, these kids could have the impact of a level 4 hurricane," Levine said. "Will they devastate us with a lack of education and productivity, or will they pay the bills when we, as boomers, age?"

Children's needs, Levine said, will have to be against those of another growing population in the state -- the very old.

Though the Florida census figures released this week don't break out this age group, estimates hint that the next round of official numbers will show dramatic increases of those age 75 and older.

Levine contends these numbers will make Florida the country's only state with substantial populations in four distinct generations: Those up to age 20, 20-40, 40-60 and 60 and above.

"Florida is a four-generation state that is budgeted for three," he said. "The challenge we are facing today, and more so in the coming decades, is how we can afford as a state to take care of our families and honor our elders who need long-term care."

Shifts in spending as government morphs to better serve a changing population is something that's already happening in Pinellas, said Brian Smith, the county's planning director.

While Pinellas, which is largely built-out, has seen smaller percentage increases than those registered statewide, the trend holds there as well. Pinellas' under 18 population grew by 17 percent, while its adult population grew by 6 percent.

In response to shifting needs, the county has focused on parks and recreation. He pointed to the Penny for Pinellas sales tax, approved by voters, that paid for many of those projects.

"As the people get younger, there are more and different services they need," he said. Permuth, the University of South Florida professor, said there is a distinct geographic pattern to the counties that are seeing greater rates of growth in their populations of children.

They are the large urban counties, and especially those counties that border them. Counties such as Broward, which is absorbing those leaving Miami-Dade, illustrate that line of thought, as does Manatee, which is at the southern edge of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

Both have strong growth in their under 18 populations with Broward registering a 49 percent increase and Manatee logging a 35 percent increase.

"This is urban flight," Permuth said. "We're transplanting parts of urban settings. The reason this is happening is there is space for young people to start. That is where the explosion of growth is going to be in the decades to come."

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