Summer is a time children enjoy playing, relaxing, and hanging out with friends, but New Jersey children have fewer kids to hang out with now than their older brothers and sisters did a few years ago.
According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, New Jersey had almost 2.01 million children under age 18 in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available. That's nearly 4 percent lower than in the early 2000s, when the state had about 2.09 million children. The declines are in just about every age group, with the biggest drop in the under-3 set, whose numbers dwindled 5.4 percent compared to 2006.
New Jersey's child population has decreased steadily in the past 10 years, predating the national decline, which began in 2010. The trend is not a function of the overall change in population, as New Jersey’s population grew by 2 percent or about 150,000 people between 2006 and 2014.
Although there were only 75,000 fewer children statewide in 2014 than in 2000, the decline is starting to affect schools in some counties. Five counties have seen their under-18 populations grow, with Ocean County's 8.4 percent increase leading the way. The decreases range from less than 1 percent in Bergen to nearly 17 percent in Sussex County, which also saw its overall population decline by more than 4 percent.
Last fall, the Sussex County School Boards Association conducted a program on ways to address enrollment decreases that have averaged a quarter over the past few years. The strategies they discussed include sharing administrators and other services and adopting distance learning.
"The issue has also affected other counties and individual districts," said Frank Belluscio, deputy executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association. "But it is not an issue in every school district and does not appear to be as widespread as it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s."
At that time, during the post-baby-boom bust, school closings or realignments were widespread.
Belluscio said at least two districts -- Vernon in Sussex and Evesham in Burlington -- have discussed closing schools. And a survey by the association shows that some 25 percent expect to have to lay off staff because of declining enrollment or financial constraints or both in the near future.
Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said school districts that may find themselves with free classroom space can try to attract tuition-paying students from other districts, something not commonly done during the last baby bust.
Population trends come in waves, with the post-World War II baby boom that resulted in an explosion of births followed by a trough and then the baby boomlet or baby boom echo, as the baby boomers had their own families. Some demographers have blamed the recession and slow recovery, while others note that the bust could be affected by women continuing to wait longer before having children. An expected increase in the birth rate did not happen last year; instead, the number of live births per 1,000 women age 15 to 44 dropped to 62.5 to tie the lowest point on record, in 2013.
When and whether births increase will depend on the millennials, the current generation with women in their prime child-bearing years. Millennials so far are tending to live differently from their parents, waiting longer to marry, if they marry at all, and to have children.