Retirees love Arizona.
But so do an increasing number of young families.
Census figures released Tuesday show the state has the highest growth rate in the nation of young children — with the East Valley leading the way.
"The idea that Arizona is an old person state exclusively is a misunderstanding. It's not accurate," said Jeanine L'Ecuyer, a spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Napolitano.
U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that between April 2000 and July 2003, Arizona had the highest growth rate in the country of children under 5 and the second highest growth of children 5 to 17.
By July 2003, census officials estimated there were 5.6 million residents in Arizona, with about 7.8 percent of the population under 5. Gilbert, Chandler and Mesa had even |higher percentages of residents under 5.
The majority of the growth is attributed to people moving here from other states and from Mexico because of the promising economic environment and the low cost of living, according to economists.
W. David Thompson, CEO and president of Spectrum Astro in Gilbert, said the report confirms his "Ozzie and Harriet" theory — that affordable housing in Arizona is allowing young families to thrive here on only one income. He said California couples can move to the East Valley and get twice the house, even when one of them quits work.
"Arizona is attracting couples in their children-bearing years," Thompson said. "Particularly young professionals in places like Gilbert."
Helen Hollands, a Gilbert Unified School District governing board member, said quality East Valley schools are also a draw for many families. She said these families come from all over the nation and bring with them a wide range of expectations that the district strives to meet.
"Growth is a challenge," Hollands said. "We've been dealing with and preparing for growth for a long time now."
Katrina Sherk, a Gilbert mother of four, said another big draw for her in the East Valley is its abundance of community activities at libraries, schools and parks. Her Web site, www.activemoms.com, catalogues more than 300 family-oriented events every month across the East Valley.
She said restaurants and other businesses also do a great job catering to young families. "We have places that roll out the red carpets for kids," she said.
But such growth also brings problems.
Carol Kamin, executive director of Children’s Action Alliance said these statistics show Arizona has many young families who need assistance.
There are 9,000 families on a waiting list for subsidized child care, and the list is supposed to increase to more than 14,000 by June. Many families that can’t afford child care have had to quit jobs, leave children home alone or have older children supervise younger ones, she said.
The influx of students from Mexico has also created a shortage of qualified teachers for English learners, said Rebecca Gau, a senior research analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University.
Napoleon Pisano, a member of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, said many East Valley policymakers fail to recognize that Arizona is not only growing younger — but also increasingly Hispanic.
"I don’t believe our schools and our government have recognized that yet, even though it’s been said repeatedly," he said. "I think they’re still in denial."
Despite the rapid growth of young families in Arizona, census figures still show a strong retirement population. The state had the third-highest growth rate nationwide among people 65 and older, at 7 percent.
Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said Arizona has a disproportionate number of residents at both ends of the population — young children and senior citizens.
“It puts severe financial strain on the state because you need more school buildings, teachers and education services — and you have fewer working people paying for it,” Essigs said.
- The Associated Press and Tribune writers Brian Powell, Jim Ripley and CeCe Todd contributed to this report