(November 2002) The 1990s, although a boom time for most of the United States, were hard on Guam — especially on its children and families. As economic conditions deteriorated, the child population grew at the highest rate since the 1960s.

Guam, an unincorporated territory of the United States lying 3,700 miles west of Honolulu in the western Pacific Ocean, became a major military site for the United States in the last year of World War II. After the war, the U.S. military presence in Guam grew dramatically, contributing to rapid population growth and economic development in the territory.

But since 1950, the military presence on Guam has declined. In 1950, 30 percent of those considered adults were in the armed forces; by 1970, the percentage had dropped to 20 percent. Between 1990 and 2000, there was a particularly sharp (63 percent) drop in the share of adults serving in the armed forces, from 11,952 to 4,442. And by 2000, people in the armed forces accounted for only 4 percent of Guam’s adult population. Because the presence of troops on the island created demand for goods and services and led to substantial U.S. investments in Guam’s infrastructure, military downsizing is cited as a factor in the recent decline of Guam’s economy.

The foreign-born population, on the other hand, has increased in recent years. Roughly one-third of Guam’s population (49,619) is foreign-born, and half of these people came to the island after 1990. Migration to the island increased with the passage of the U.S. Compact of Free Association Act of 1985, which authorized unrestricted immigration of people in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands to the United States and its territories. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of noncitizens in Guam rose 36 percent, from 20,606 to 27,944. Guam has recently received some reimbursement from the U.S. government to provide social services and education to new immigrants.

At the same time, the number of children living in Guam has increased substantially thanks to a comparatively high fertility rate of around 3 children per woman (the U.S. rate is 2.1 births per woman). Between 1990 and 2000, the number of children increased 17 percent, from 46,894 to 54,854. This represents the largest numerical and percentage increase in the population under age 18 since the 1960s. (In the nation as a whole, the number of children increased by 14 percent during the past decade.) Between 1990 and 2000, the share of children in the population remained constant at 35 percent, a relatively high proportion under age 18 compared with 26 percent for the United States as a whole.

As a result of economic pressures and of natural disasters — two typhoons and an earthquake — the unemployment rate in Guam increased from 4 percent to 11 percent among the civilian labor force between 1990 and 2000. (In the United States as a whole, about 6 percent of the civilian labor force was unemployed in 2000.) While the national median household income increased by 7 percent between 1989 and 1999, median household income in Guam decreased by 2 percent.

Not surprisingly, more families and children sank into poverty. The percentage of families living in poverty rose from 13 percent in 1989 to 20 percent in 1999. The number of children living in families with incomes below the poverty line grew 77 percent. The percentage of children in poor families also increased, from 19 percent to 29 percent-higher than that in every U.S. state.

The increase in the overall poverty rate for families is related in part to the 54 percent increase in the number of female-headed families with children over the period (see table). About 44 percent of female-headed families with children were living in poverty in 1999, compared with 40 percent in 1989.

Rise in Female-Headed Households in Guam, 1990 to 2000

Type of Household Percent of households, 1990 Percent of households, 2000
Married-couple households 80 71
Female-headed households 14 19

Guam faces the problem of building up its civilian economic sector to offset the impact of military downsizing and of a decline in (primarily Japanese) tourism, its other major source of revenue. Meanwhile, the needs of its children and families require immediate and careful attention.

Excerpted from the PRB/KIDS COUNT report Children in Guam (PDF: 2.21MB).