I like people; that’s why I got a PhD in demography. My ideal existence is some rural village where my bevy of kids play outside in the streets with all the other neighborhood kids while the adults chat on front porches, where life is essentially an expanding cycle of weddings, births, and reunions (which according to my reading, is essentially what the celestial kingdom is). While most people aspire to some complex mix of competing goods in an attempt to “have it all,” the simple archetype for my ideal life is an old Jewish woman in New York City with 2,000 descendants for whom faith and family were everything, while the my antitype for society is the childless, future-less dystopia portrayed in the PD James book/movie Children of Men.
This attitude is to some extent embedded in our theology and culture, and I think that’s one reason why our birth rates are so high. Not as high as the Hutterites, Amish, or Ultra-Orthodox Jews, but still high nonetheless. From the folklore and early histories I absorbed being raised in Utah Valley (and from my and my children’s love of The Great Brain Series) I’ve always envisioned Pioneer-era Utah as a golden age for this kind of family-centered, youthful communitarian existence. (And yes, like all golden ages I’m sure it was complicated). Maybe because I’m raising my bevy of children in a relatively childless environment outside of DC and I’m pining for the small village, I’ve been wondering just how many kids and big families there actually were in early pioneer Utah.
Thanks to the good folks at IPUMS, a project that provides user-friendly census data, this is actually pretty easy to get numbers on. I ran a cross-tab showing percent of the population in Utah that was 14 and under, percent that is 15-64, and percent that is 65+. The former category divided by the middle category creates the “youth dependency ratio,” or the number of youth per working age adult. This is a pretty standard measure that allows us to compare Utah with other countries and areas. I ran the numbers and calculated the ratios for each of the decennial censuses from 1850 on, both for the US and Utah.
A few caveats: often censuses have back stories that may affect results (for example, I assume the 1890 Census is missing because a fire destroyed most of those records), so I’m not sure how accurate the 1850 Utah census was given that it was taken shortly after the entry into Utah, but I think overall this paints an accurate picture. Also, later in the 19th century there were more non-Latter-day Saint settlers, so these numbers are “conservative” in the sense that the Latter-day Saint population was even younger once you filter out the heavily adult male miners in Park City.
Even so, my image of settlements bursting with children appears to be pretty accurate. (As a side note, sometimes faithful members seem to take the view that polygamy is a great mystery whose divine reasons we should just “put on a shelf” when in my view the both D&C and the Book of Mormon are pretty clear about its purpose: to raise up seed, and raise up seed it certainly did as marriage rates for women were about as high as could be; for example, in her analysis of Manti Utah, Kathryn Daynes could only find one woman in the early Utah years who never married). In 1860 there were more children than working-age adults in Utah. This is incredibly high. As a point of comparison, the only country in the world right now that can say the same is Mali.
If there was a golden age of Latter-day Saint frontier life it was probably 1860s Utah (the fact that the Civil War was keeping the “gentiles” occupied probably had something to do with this). It was after the starvation era (unless you were in St. George) and the Utah War, but before the anti-polygamy persecutions. As seen, as time progressed we tracked general trends and had fewer children (and the coming of the railroad probably dampened Utah’s distinctiveness of non-Latter-day Saints moved in). During my childhood in 1990s Orem we still had about 1/2 a child per working age adult—still enough to provide ample fodder for neighborhood night games and bus stop culture. Now, we have about 1/3 of a child per working age adult, in comparison to the US’ 1/4 of a child per working age adult. At this point I’ve kind of given up on trying to replicate my youth for my kids, and have consigned myself to the fact that planned play dates and driving to another neighborhood to trick or treat is the reality of 21st century parenting, but in my own house of six kids and not enough adults we try to carve out a little piece that existence.