(January 2003) The number of children in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands grew by 49 percent during the 1990s, but children’s share in the overall population there declined slightly, from 27 percent to 26 percent as the population grew a whopping 60 percent, mainly due to an influx of foreign workers. Children’s diminishing relative standing may blunt the perception of the need for programs and services directed at children, at a time when such services appear to need attention.

The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which governs its own affairs but also maintains close economic and political ties with the United States, lies about three-quarters of the way between Hawaii and the Philippines. The Commonwealth’s economy relies heavily on garment manufacturing, an industry that attracts temporary foreign workers primarily from the Philippines and China. As of Census 2000, the Northern Mariana Islands population was 69,221. The growth of the population, and of the foreign-born and under-18 segments, is shown in the following table; 86 percent of the foreign-born population came to the island after 1990.

Total Population, Children, and the Foreign-Born in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, 1970-2000

Year Total population Children (under 18) As a % of total population Foreign-born As a % of total population
1970 9,640 5,509 57% 155 2%
1980 16,780 7,898 47% 4,623 28%
1990 43,345 11,905 27% 26,593 61%
2000 69,221 17,733 26% 40,122 58%

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 1970 Census General Population Characteristics for the Northern Mariana Islands; 1980 Census General Population Characteristics for the Northern Mariana Islands; 1990 Census General Population Characteristics for the Northern Mariana Islands; and 2000 Census Population and Housing Profile for the Northern Mariana Islands.

The table makes clear that the child population is growing quickly, though not as fast as the foreign-born population. Beyond their numbers, how well off are the Commonwealth’s children? The picture is mixed. The child poverty rate — the percentage of children in families with incomes below the poverty line — decreased slightly over the last decade, from 39 percent to 38 percent. The reduction is an improvement, but the rate still compares unfavorably with the rate in the United States as a whole (which fell from 18 percent to 16 percent over the period).

The percentage of female-headed families in the Commonwealth rose from 12 percent to 17 percent. This rate is less than that for the United States, which rose from 20 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2000, but the increase is worrisome since children growing up in single-parent families typically do not have access to the economic or human resources available to children growing up in two-parent families.

The percentage of high school dropouts in the Northern Mariana Islands rose during the 1990s, from 29 percent to 30 percent. Although this increase is slight, the Commonwealth’s dropout rate exceeds the rates in every U.S. state and in two U.S. territories, American Samoa and Guam. Work in the garment industry is linked to the dropout rate. With abundant, unskilled jobs, the industry — like the services industry, which caters to tourists — appears to lure the Commonwealth’s own young people away from school. On Saipan Island, the seat of government and the home of over 90 percent of the population and the garment industry, the dropout rate (the percentage of teens ages 16 to 19 who were not enrolled in school and were not high school graduates) was 32 percent. Foreign garment workers also contribute to this high rate, as many are young people who did not graduate from high school in their home countries.

The percentage of children in need of child care — measured as the percentage of children in families where all resident parents report being in the labor force — was 64 percent in 2000 compared with 59 percent nationwide. Although this indicates the existence of job opportunities and income for parents in the Commonwealth, it also may signal more strain on grandparents and society to provide care in parents’ absence. In the Northern Mariana Islands, there were 2,183 grandparents who lived with their grandchildren in 2000, and about 58 percent reported they were responsible for child care. Nationally, only 42 percent of grandparents who lived with their grandchildren reported being responsible for child care.

The rapid increase in the population under age 18 has important social implications for the Commonwealth. Although extended family networks in the Northern Mariana Islands provide a safety net for many children, there is also a growing need for programs to provide child care and youth and family services in the area. Providing services for the young is likely to consume a substantial share of the Commonwealth’s limited resources.